It’s the end of term and all of my flatmates have moved out for the summer. I’m still here.
It’s not that I finished later than everyone else – in actual truth, my course finished a week before all my friends’ – but rather I have a few things left here to sort out before I move back for the summer.
It’s so quiet. Ordinarily, I can hear everyone else walking around, banging doors, running the water in their bathrooms. But now I can’t hear anything. It’s too quiet.
Luckily I’m only here for another week. but it is making me wonder how anyone lives on their own and doesn’t feel innately lonely.
I used to think I was introverted, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s just the idea that: if I need someone, there’s no one there, that’s making me feel like this. I couldn’t tell you. But I do feel very consciously aware of how alone I am.
I’ve never been this alone before. Back home my parents never left me alone for more than a day and the second I moved out I moved into a hall full of students with all of their noise and personalities. Now it’s just me.
You hear people talk about older people getting lonely when their partner passes or they become to frail to leave their house. I don’t think I really appreciated how awful it must feel until now, and this is after a day on my own with the knowledge that in a week’s time my dad will come and get me and take me home. That can’t even begin to scratch the surface of what they must feel. I can never truly understand that pain because whilst I think in my head I’m going through something similar I know in reality that I’m not and I can’t possibly know what they must feel unless I’ve been through it.
But then we’re getting to the difference between sympathy and empathy.
I think we’ve already established that whilst I feel pretty down right now I can’t understand how an elderly person who’s partner has passed must feel. I can’t be sympathetic because I can’t have sympathy for them. There are no shared experiences or common feelings between us. What I can do however is acknowledge their pain. This is empathy.
“I understand how hard this is for you Anna.” is sympathy and in this case… a lie. I don’t understand how hard it is because I haven’t had to deal with that situation.
“I can see how hard this is for you Anna.” is empathy. Acknowledging the pain without claiming to understand or have telepathic powers.
Sympathy is something we have for our friends and loved ones when they are upset and something we grow up learning but empathy is a professional skill you learn when you find yourself feeling that way for people you don’t know and cannot by extension fully understand.