I believe the problem today can be summed up simply: people mistake sympathy for compassion.
Sympathy is feeling bad for someone and wishing they didn’t feel so bad.
Sympathy is noble on the surface (“people should suffer less!”) but can often end up being subtly self-serving (“people should suffer less because I don’t want to feel bad for them anymore.”)
Compassion is similar to sympathy but different in an important way.
Like sympathy, compassion begins with feeling bad for someone. But instead of simply wanting the person’s suffering to go away, compassion involves someone who is willing to suffer alongside that person so that they may overcome their challenges.
Sympathy is sending flowers and a card to a friend when a parent dies. Compassion is driving to their house and holding them as they cry.
Sympathy is letting a screaming child have that toy they want so they’ll stop screaming. Compassion is letting them cry because you know they will be better off once they understand that they can’t always get what they want.
Sympathy is changing your profile picture on social media for whatever the new cause du jour is. Compassion is actually giving time or money to victims, listening to their stories, helping them rebuild their lives.
Sympathy is a good thing. We need it in the world. But it’s also easy. It’s short-term and short-sighted. It’s an, “Aw, I feel bad for him.” Sympathy is focused on the feeling rather than the person. “I hope they feel better.”
Compassion is about the person. “I don’t just hope they feel better, I hope they become better.” Therefore, compassion is more involved. It takes more effort—both mental and emotional.
Sympathy is trying to remove as much strain and struggle as possible. Compassion is trying to help a person move through a manageable amount of struggle so they can grow into a better person.
I believe that as a culture we’re over-optimized for sympathy and under-optimized for compassion. This is probably largely social media’s fault, but not entirely.
Sympathy is easy to communicate online. It’s also easy to see sympathy communicated between others. Compassion is like sarcasm, it is not communicated well online. It’s also harder to recognize between others.
We’re probably also over-optimized for sympathy because it’s easier to measure and study. It’s relatively easy to measure how good/bad a person feels. It’s incredibly difficult to measure whether someone has grown or not.