One of the syllabus subtopics in grade 12 psychology is social responsibility, which includes a study of prosocial behaviour: Why, how, and in what circumstances do people do good things for others? As part of this topic, we look at theories of altruism and empathy. My students are very often familiar with the words themselves, but the definitions can be tricky, especially because the colloquial use of these words does not always match their actual meaning, or the way that they are defined for purposes of psychology research. When defining altruism and empathy in class, we also consider the word compassion. According to Merriam-Webster, these three words can be defined as follows:
altruism – unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
It follows from here that empathy is feeling for and with others without the reliance on personal experience, compassion is awareness of others’ negative feelings and the desire to lessen pain, and altruism is doing something good for others without the hope for personal gain.
This is one of the circumstances in which I wish English had better words, and in which I am inclined to lean on other languages for their definitions. Learning other languages allows us to learn a great deal about how we see the world due to the language that we use, and I am indebted to my own studies of different languages, as well as exposure to several languages from childhood, in forming this critical understanding.
More recently, I learned the German word Mitgefühl from one of those pithy sayings that sometimes accompanies teabags. I looked up the word and thought, “Aha.” Literally translated, this means “feeling with” and is the German word for compassion. To have compassion is to feel with someone, which therefore clearly implies wanting to lessen the pain of negative emotions. It’s normal, totally okay, and even healthy to sit with negative emotions. We cannot, and should not, be happy and positive all the time, because being so would mean blocking out much of the real world. But it is not enough to wish away the bad; to be compassionate requires doing something to get rid of the bad. I can feel with you and hold your hand, and perhaps this is the action. Perhaps this is the tiny step from just feeling. After all, can I claim to feel with if you don’t know I’m there?
Mitgefühl explains what is required by compassion in a way that the English word does not. When I expressed my delight with this finding to a German friend, he taught me another word that doesn’t exist in English, though the idea certainly does. Mitfreude is not classified as a word in the first German-English dictionary that I checked, but it appears on discussion forums, blogs, and also in other dictionaries. Mit means with and Freude is joy, so Mitfreude can be defined as shared joy. I like that this is a word in German because it sets a tone for the way people relate to one another. Once upon a time, as I was slowly and poetically picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I kept a note on my phone that said, “When those we love are happy, be happy for them.” Mitfreude describes what I felt amidst all the other turmoil, and I remember feeling lighter as I wrote myself that note. Maybe having a word would have given me a place to situate myself without needing to come up with my own inspirational saying.
One thing I am learning about Germany, and this is demonstrated by words like the two described here, is that there is an emphasis on the collective. There is a focus on others, on being part of a group, and on togetherness. This is reinforced by the German school system, reflected to some degree also at my school, in which classes move as a group for the entirety of their time together, making them a bit like a family in which they are attuned to one another and responsible for each other. Upon learning the word Mitgefühl from a tea bag, I had a better appreciation of why this is the way that it is.
Language and culture are inextricably linked and it is through learning one that we can access the other. It is then through learning that we come to better understand ourselves, where we come from, and how we fit into the different worlds in which we wander.
“Learning another language is like becoming another person.” – Haruki Murakami