On the distinction between empathy, sympathy, compassion, understanding, and love, and what it means to act through the emotional lens of love, first.

Excuse me, human, but you seem to have fallen down a hole. Your predicament deserves more than my mere acknowledgment of it. Which of the following options would you find most beneficial?

Empathy: I will go down into this hole and sit with you, to feel your pain. Sympathy: You’re in a hole. That sucks for you. Compassion: You are at risk of starvation, so here is some food and water. Understanding: Being in this hole limits your freedom and mobility, and puts your life at risk. It is a real threat to your existence.

Love: I observe that you have fallen down a hole, and that this is not just undesirable, but negatively impacts your life in significant ways. To help you out of this predicament I will sacrifice some of my time and energy to find a ladder or rope, and call in additional help. With joined forces, we will get you out of this situation so you can enjoy your life with the same freedoms as I do now.

The social deficit is love

Our society does not suffer an empathy deficit, but a fear of embracing love for what it truly is. Love is not just a romantic or familial emotion, to be reserved exclusively for the most special and dearest in our lives. Love is a holistic concept that incorporates elements of all four other responses. More importantly, love is also the only true solution to the problem.

The shortcoming of empathy is that is doesn’t scale: you can’t go sit into every hole with every person who suffers, and it doesn’t actually help them; it only helps you understand what that suffering is like. This is a necessary step towards love, but is far from the panacea some like to bill it as. Put another way: you can’t empathize with a demographic; only with an individual.

The shortcoming of sympathy is that it offers no solution, only an acknowledgment of the struggle. Without sympathy, however, a solution does not validate the pain or suffering for what it is, which is important for both the person in the hole (to feel seen and validated), and for you (to recognize a good solution over a bad one).

The shortcoming of compassion is that it offers kindness that does not necessarily solve the real problem, even if it solves a problem. Compassion is like the handout to a homeless person that may very well keep them alive (so give them some change!), but doesn’t address the structural societal problems and inequalities that caused their unhoused status in the first place. Food and water in the hole, but don’t stop there.

And finally, the shortcoming with understanding is that it is passive and offers no solace. It is necessary, however, because without understanding the true depth of the predicament, and the multiple problems it causes, your proposed solution may be incomplete or ineffective.

Love is combining these four critical emotional responses, and applying them together towards coming up with a solution. It often involves some sacrifice, however small, because while love is given freely, it takes conscious will and effort to apply it. Love demands that conscious consideration of the situation, the circumstances of another person’s struggle, and the full complexity of the problem and possible solutions.

Love is taking action informed by empathy, sympathy, compassion and understanding, and solving the problem holistically. Acting through this emotional lens of love, first, means processing the other four emotional responses internally (in your head), and outwardly opening your response with the one from Love.

Photo credit: Iswanto Arif