Synonyms 101

Ugochi Eke

© Copyright 2022 by Ugochi Eke


Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
I believe that in the English language, the most confusing words are the almost-synonyms, Sympathy and Empathy. Maybe that stems from a personal background instead of a general one, but hear me out.

Sympathy can be explained as feeling sorry for someone because you share their sentiments. For instance, your friend losing a parent. You donít know what it feels like to lose a parent, but you feel sad because they did. On the other hand, Empathy means understanding the feelings of another but not necessarily sharing their sentiments. These are merely dictionary definitions which havenít seemed to make my confusion any less.

When I speak about how I feel about people that havenít had access to clean water since their birthówhile I constantly let water from the faucet run down the drain while giving various excuses such as brushing my teeth, taking a shower or for whatever reasons my brain chooses to conjureówhich do I use? Sympathy or empathy? Or when I throw away perfectly good food because Iíve lost my appetite while there are people begging on the streets to get just the crumbs off the plate. Will that be the S word or the E word?

You mean that when one of classmates is sent out of school because their parents defaulted in paying their fees for the term and I am seated in class having had my tuition paid in full for the whole session, I could easily choose one of the two words to convey how I feel? Which do I use to talk to parents whose children were victims of school shootings, while I went to school everyday and only complained about the lunch food they gave me.

While weíre still on the topic of parents, which do I use when I complain about my parents being separated and barely ever seeing my dad, while there are people out there who last saw their parents at the borders of a country? Oh, here are common examples. So while I complain about school being stressful to me, there are people who do not know how to differentiate between the alphabets of any language and while I scan through dresses to wear when there are people living off the scraps I discard, I can choose to say Ďtheir lives are so hard, Iím sympathizing/emphasizing. So sad!í

Iíve tried to break it down into the simplest terms as to why I donít understand which words to use. Can I say I share their sentiments when I do not know them? Or can I say I understand them when I do not?

How can I understand something Iíve never felt? Or how do I share the feelings of people I donít know? I can only but do a few things such as; sit in my wound up car while we drive past them on the streets, or sit across from the television while they are displayed on the news channel. I am not capable of putting a title to the painful tug in my heart as I observe them. Is it sympathy or is it empathy? English isnít my native language anyway.

Iím a medical Student at University of Nigeria.           

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