Occupational Therapy / OT Without Borders / Volunteering abroad

Empathy vs. Sympathy

“Whoever is fond of the comfortable and the fortunate stays out of politics. He does not want anything to change.” – Italian peasant boy

From Frank Kronenberg and Nick Pollard’s chapter “Overcoming Occupational Apartheid” in the book OT Without Borders: Learning from the Spirit of Survivors

On Friday our Pediatric Nutrition group set out to administer some interviews in the community (in Spanish or course) on people’s perceptions or understanding of pediatric nutritional supplements. We’re also planning to do the interviews with some of the hospital staff and hopefully some of the parents of the babies in the nutrition department of the hospital we’re volunteering at this week.

Many of the people are more or less middle class here in Antigua Guatemala, so no, we are not able to interview any of the rural dwelling Guatemalans for this project. However, it definitely gives us a sense of the perceptions of people who (most likely) do not have to struggle with severely undernourished children, the lack of access to basic healthcare, or with little money or land to be able provide more than just maiz, beans and rice, with maybe an egg once a week to their family. It was a bit surprising to me to hear an interviewee say how poor people simply lack proper education on what foods are healthy and that the poor people weren’t being clever enough with their resources to provide more for their families on such small plots of land. Several of the interviewees seemed rather disconnected from the reality of the poor in that they recognized it was a problem in the country out in the rural areas, but the magnitude and severity of the malnourishment problem didn’t seem readily apparent to them.

I’m not trying to criticize any of the people we talked to. In fact, I feel like the same thing could easily and very likely occur in the States if I were to go around surveying middle class Americans about issues related to poverty in the U.S. Whether consciously or not, it just is not easy or perhaps comfortable for someone who has lived a life of relative comfort to really comprehend the plight of being poor. When it is not a part of your reality, why would you want to take on someone else’s burdens of their reality? While I’ve seen extreme poverty, I don’t know what it’s like as a lived experience.

It reminds me of the concept of empathy v. sympathy we have discussed in OT school: if we’re working with a client of a different gender, age, socioeconomic status and altogether different background from us, we can’t tell them we understand how they feel, because we don’t really know what it’s like to be in their position of that gender/age/socioeconomic status. All we can really do is validate their feelings with sympathy.

I’ll never really know what it’s like to be an indigenous Guatemalan living on $2 a day without or with limited access to an education, basic healthcare, or enough land to use for more than just basic subsistence farming. But having studied the social/economic/political context that such a Guatemalan is living in here, I can validate their struggle



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