Pathies: Sym- vs. Em-

A friend used to say, “If everyone could throw their problems onto a table in the middle of the room and then listen to each other’s stories, everyone would go crazy trying to make sure they got their own problem back.”

Until this past year, I was unfamiliar with the term “spoonie” or the “spoon theory.” For those with chronic, painful and pain-filled conditions and illness, the term has become incredibly popular in the last half-decade, because it depicts better than most analogies what it is like to live with a chronic illness or disability.

A writer named Christine Miserandino is credited with inventing the analogy on her terrifically-named website, But You Don’t Look Sick. She has lupus and tells a story about how she explained to her best friend what her world is like. She handed the friend a dozen spoons and explained that it is now the start of a new day and that different tasks would cost a spoon each. When she reveals that “getting up and showering” would cost a couple spoons, the point started to become clear.

From “The Spoon Theory” :

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons.” But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she? I also told her to always be conscious of how many she had, and not to drop them because she can never forget she has Lupus.

People with chronic pain have a talent for analogy that perhaps they did not know they had until they learned that they needed to find a way to communicate what life feels like for them. They become good explainers, because the quality of their life depends on it.

Because pain is one of the most personal of sensations, or appears to be—a burn might feel the same for you as it feels or me, but we only have our anecdotes to compare and weigh against one another; meanwhile, I’m on fire!—because perception is personal and pain is utterly a perception and not a measurable reality, those who suffer chronic pain are left with their own talent for creating analogies to make others understand their day, their night, their world. Anyone who has visited a pain specialist (I have not) is familiar with the range of sketched faces that they must circle to communicate how much pain they are in. I have a friend with fibromyalgia, and I remember her saying things like, “My back is at a 7, but my legs are a 5.”

Good sensations seem to be almost universal; our senses of humor may differ, but a laugh is a laugh. Your feet might be ticklish while my arms might be, but a tickle is the same for us both. (Unless it causes pain, which it might for someone with fibromyalgia.) As much as I love comedy and enjoy making people laugh, I have not yet found myself explaining why I found that one punch-line made me laugh with a barely audible “Heh” (call it a 4 on the laugh scale that does not exist) and another one got a laugh from the back of my throat.

Until July 15, 2010, I did not have much skill with empathy. Sympathy, sure. Sympathy is an “attaboy” given to someone bearing up under a weight without offering to assist in lifting it at all. Sympathy was something I gave to someone with the expectation that I would be thanked by the injured party. “Wow, that sucks,” is sympathy, and before the other person can continue talking and telling the sympathetic person any details, the sympathetic person has moved on, having rescued them with an “attaboy” of sympathy.

Empathy is love. It is saying to someone, “I do not know what this is like. Tell me,” and then listening. Of the two “‘pathies,” it is the one that requires more effort but can bring greater rewards.

If my problems were in the center of the room—my diminished mobility and two hands that are becoming clubs (I can tie shoelaces, but only if I want to eat up a day)—I would take them back. And maybe they have given me a modicum of empathy.

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In answer to no one’s question: Yes. I chose a new layout. I was using “The Columnist” all 2014, was happy with it, but thought I would change things for the new year. I am using the free layouts still, but might invest in this website. Any suggestions? Sympathy? Empathy? Does this layout make my ideas look good?

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 1 asks, “If you could spend the next year as someone radically different from the current ‘you’—a member of a different species, someone from a different gender or generation, etc.—who would you choose to be?”

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  1. rogershipp · January 1, 2015

    Yes, I can sympathize… what you you described. I can empathize – but not the the same extent. I love the spoon analogy. I will use it when I need to explain something. I have enjoyed reading your blogs. Thanks for sharing so much. Have a blessed New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Priceless Joy · January 1, 2015

    I live with chronic pain as well. Because people cannot “see” that pain they often don’t believe me to the point of me being judged and treated harshly. It’s terrible. I like this layout. I think you should keep it. 🙂 xo

    Liked by 2 people

  3. thereluctantbaptist · January 1, 2015

    I do like your new layout and it does make your ideas look good. Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is usually born of suffering. It’s what causes a person to realize that they don’t know what the other is going through, exactly, and what gives them the love to listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Martha Kennedy · January 1, 2015

    Hmmm….before I had hip surgery (which came 3 years later than it should have) I lived with excruciating pain. In that period I learned that when the pain was intense enough there was no possibility of feeling pleasure. I understood then the meaning of the word “opposite” as I never had before.

    I’m afraid I take issue with the sympathy/empathy thing. It makes it sound as if sympathy is inferior, useless, even “bad.” It’s more than an “attaboy” kind of thing; it’s often appropriate and useful and not just to the sympathizer. I can’t empathize with everything everyone feels or experiences. Sometimes the best I’ve got is the understanding that they’re having a hard time. That’s not nothing. Case in point. My niece is having a really hard time with her husband right now. I know exactly what she’s going through (I have been there) but all I’m prepared to give her is sympathy because more involvement on my part would result in rescue and she needs to contend with this herself, perhaps with me as a sympathetic ally. I can say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this, now what are you going to do about it?” I don’t empathize at all, but I am sorry. I would not wish that for her. I hope that makes sense — each of them, sympathy and empathy, have their place in human relationships, I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · January 1, 2015

      Thanks for your empathetic reading; in my speed I definitely drew too completely a black or white distinction. Broad strokes. I have learned that saying to someone, “I’m sorry you’re going through this,” is empathy. And adding even that to my emotional palette brought a big change in my life.

      I did draw it too broadly and too harshly there, I think. Thank you for your comments and helping me re-frame that in my understanding, Martha

      Liked by 1 person

      • Martha Kennedy · January 1, 2015

        I tend to be naturally extremely empathetic — I think it was the situation I grew up with, my dad having MS. It was a lesson for me to step back and learn to distinguish the difference between the two. I guess my brother taught me that. My empathy for him could have killed me and it didn’t help him. I had to learn to sympathize with the mess he was in without sharing it with him. VERY difficult. Now I tend to see them as different shades of the same color, with sympathy being paler.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. lifelessons · January 1, 2015

    Mark, I like the new layout. I think when the words are good, the layout needs to be as simple as possible so it doesn’t get in the way. So many choices of style make it more difficult to read, and after a certain point, I just give up. White words on black or red backgrounds? Impossible for me. Fancy small fonts? Too irritating to bear, even for the best of blogs. It looks like you use Calibri. Good for you. The easiest to read. In short, I applaud your style sense!! Happy New Year—Judy

    Liked by 2 people

    • thereluctantbaptist · January 5, 2015

      Now I’m wondering whether the font my theme uses for quotations is difficult to read…


  6. sarahjcj · January 2, 2015

    I had a friend who over the period of her life managed to educate me and many more ignorant people about the difference between empathy and sympathy, the latter of the two she had little time for. If you have not listened to her before, I would highly recommend it. You may even find her funny. I would like to listen to you too.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Jennifer's Journal · January 2, 2015

    I have been living with chronic pain for ten years now, and well-versed in the spoon theory. Just when I think I don’t need to worry about it anymore, and perhaps I now have more spoons at my disposal, the fibro clocks me over the head with another attack.

    Like the theme, and thanks for having me on your list of hall of fame bloggers!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. barbarakonery · January 3, 2015

    I think that you’re the first person, that isn’t affected by invisible illness, that wrote about pain in a way that the only thing I can say is : thank you!
    I live with invisible “monster” and, even though, I tryied to use spoon theory together with much more others, I did never accomplished to see or feel empathy from people I care about. Now, you’re complete stranger and you made me smile. It’s good to know that someone, beside people like me, tries and understands.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. bookreviews1966 · January 3, 2015

    OH YES- if we put our problems on the table, and found creative ways to solve them, and use them as opportunities to grow and change the world, life would be far easier….thanks for stopping over to my blog 🙂 Jackie ♥

    Liked by 2 people

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