Empathy in a Sea of Sympathy

Making comparisons is never a pure endeavor. It’s always a matter of impression, and often a matter of judgement that depends more on your own self-imposed view of the world than on concrete similarities. Its a process one is less and less comfortable with when the balance of privilege is skewed…

Sometimes its difficult to find similarities between Mokhotlong and back home. And sometimes it’s hard to relate to situations people go through here, to have a source of true empathy, rather than sympathy.

But when such similarities pop up, I like them. My middle name is McKeown – a great-grandmother’s maiden name – and there just so happens to be a Sesotho name, Makione, that is pronounced the exact same way. Nthabeleng now calls me Makione sometimes – my Sesotho name by default.
And when the still rarer opportunities for real empathy arise, I find I am transfixed for just a moment, absorbed…
For instance, last week, when I spoke of Ithateng’s vomiting and diarrhea – she is still fighting well, but is not out of the woods – it was with a ton of sympathy and regret. But I couldn’t really remember the last time I’d gone through something similar, physically. Thinking back, it may have been a dozen years ago. I am not sick often, and almost never have stomach issues. You forget, when you aren’t sick yourself for a long time, what vomiting and diarrhea can be like when their forces are combined.
This week, however, my sympathy was joined with empathy, as some vile bug invaded my stomach and left me, for a night and day, with Ithateng’s exact symptoms. Walking from my rondaval to the bathroom through the starlit darkness every hour of that long night of queasy, internal betrayal was a starkly odious experience. I do not exaggerate. You should never need a bucket when you are already in the bathroom. I became dehydrated, seemed to have lost weight rapidly, was lethargic and tossed and turned in bed between jolts to the bathroom.
I am better now, half a CIPRO prescription later. And even though it was horrendous while it lasted, I am now, in a way, glad my quick illness happened. Three months into my stay here, I am still constantly reminded of differences between myself and the people around me. I am reminded of my privilege, my health, my resources, my supportive family. I wish I could share more of what I have been blessed with. I wish in whatever hand they were dealt, they’d been given just one of my aces…
So it may be selfish, or represent some ugly form of solipsism, but it feels good, in a way, to be able to relate…to be able to share in the pain that has otherwise missed me, to have a legitimate dose of empathy for once, as opposed to the ever-constant sympathy.

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