Writing In The Prison, Week 2: Empathy versus Sympathy

Yesterday was the second week of my independent study, Writing In The Prison.

And this week, something that I noticed while teaching was the emotions that were expressed, and how they were reacted to.

Several of the stories this week were deeply personal, and due to their personal nature, it also brought strong emotional reactions as well. Which is completely normal in any situation, but in this particular situation, I wasn’t completely sure how I should react.

This is where empathy versus sympathy comes into play.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
Sympathy : feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Can we as humans be both empathetic and sympathetic? Or can we only experience one over the other?
In the case of the inmates, it felt as if this class serves as a unique bonding experience for them, as it is allowing them to share their thoughts and feelings with each other. But while the teachers share as well, it feels like there is still a disconnect between us. Because while we are part of the class, we still are part of the “Them”.  Even though we do not hold the same authoritative positions as the guards, we’re still volunteers in the facility. We have the freedom to leave at any time, and we technically do not have to return. We choose to come each week, for different reasons. We do not fit into a proper category because of our freedomswe are not inmates, and we are not workers.
But I know it doesn’t mean that we don’t care. In fact, I would argue in some ways, we are more compassionate, as we only get an hour to learn more about these people, and to learn more about the facility as well. And in turn, the women in the class, and the workers at the facility only get about an hour to learn more about us. Which means the limited time is allowing us to move faster, beyond the bonds of small talk, to really get to what matters.
And I think that is what makes this opportunity so special.
Until next time.
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4 thoughts on “Writing In The Prison, Week 2: Empathy versus Sympathy

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