One form of bonding that is very important for helping us to deal with the suffering of others is empathy. Empathy allows us to get inside the mind of the sufferer in the hopes that our understanding can lead to real comfort for the sufferer and potentially even help. It involves flowing blendable continual feelings that have the capacity to merge with the feelings of the person who is suffering. The sufferer can heal more easily knowing he is not alone in his feelings.

This, of course, is very different from the bonding that is generated as a result of feelings of sympathy. With sympathy, the boundaries between comforter and sufferer are much more precisely defined. With sympathy, the comforter conveys defined discrete sentiments to the sufferer. The sufferer receives them distinct from the comforter himself and these sentiments never really merge with the sufferer either. The comforter observes the plight of the sufferer, but stays behind an imaginary wall of mediation in conveying his concern.

Now In traditional societies and traditional religions, sympathy is frequently conveyed through the vehicle of ritual. For example, funeral services have formalized rituals that permit a community to express concern, to express sympathy, without people having to breach the boundaries of their individual senses of self to do so. Traditional people have the protection of a collective identity to help hold them together as they reach out to comfort mourners. And the same principle works for any loss. The. Navaho Indians have special chanting healing ceremonies sponsored by the community and they can last for days. These ceremonies can diminish many kinds of suffering by bringing a person who is suffering for whatever reason psychologically closer to his community.

Now in today’s world, where so much of the experience we have is mediated as a result of modern technological innovation, the focus becomes more on empathy which is used as a vehicle that helps the comforter to pull himself out of his isolating numbness and into a more vibrant external world. Empathy becomes a form of vigorous emotional exercise that keeps a person organically coherent so that he doesn’t flake apart from entropy. And by emotionally supporting a friend, a lover or a family member, a comforter is emotionally supporting himself.

I don’t think a person felt a need to engage in empathy so much in more traditional natural societies. In societies where group identities were strong and individual self definition not so strong, empathy would have required too much surrender of individual self, too much undifferentiation of individual self to allow a comforter to feel totally comfortable with such a state of mind. Sympathy, which allows a person to maintain his individual sense of self more fully intact, would have been a much better fit for most people trying to show solidarity with someone who was suffering in traditional societies.

With sympathy, a person can show his concerns behind the mediation of social conventions. Attending a funeral and signing a guest register. Sending a get well card or a condolence card. Even calling a person when he is sick or experiencing a major problem or crisis just to let him know you are thinking about him. The key is to show generalized defined discrete concern without too much personalized flowing blendable continual involvement. For a more traditional person partaking of a collective identity, such personal involvement can lead to the breakdown of the traditional comforter’s sense of self.

Empathy is primarily for a comforter with a strong individual sense of self. Such a person has the emotional strength and focus to truly get inside another person’s feelings and thoughts without losing sight and control over his own. Only when a person has a deep emotional connection to himself can he reach out and form such a deep emotional connection with someone else.

So we can say that both sympathy and empathy play roles for their respective comforters that can become every bit as important to the people comforting the person suffering as for the sufferer himself. Comforters configure the expression of their concerns according to the nature of the psychological support they receive in their social and physical living environments.

Comfort can be broad and shallow as with sympathizers or narrow and deep as with empathizers. The only problem in today’s world is when empathizers feel so numb from the experiential vacuum in which they live that the process of empathy becomes more important to them as a vehicle for pulling them out of their numbness than pulling the sufferer out of his suffering. Then the bond formed between the two does not lead to real help for the sufferer as the comforter has a vested interest in keeping the process of empathy going indefinitely.