I am an advocate of self-actualized learning as a means to better understand the world and the self. I have been questioned as to the importance or such things when compared to the action that needs to be taken to attack the problems evident and immediate. I think we are dealing with the question self-actualized learning seems to be an empty vessel; can self-actualized learning walk-the-walk?
The post that outlined this accusation was a mind stimulating experience for me. I had to pause and come to grips with an important consideration.
Sympathy is emotional response humans make in almost a completely unconscious reaction to something perceived. Sympathy causes us to cry at movies and to respond automatically to help an old man who falls to the sidewalk in front of us.
Empathy is however much different. Empathy happens when we, in an attempt to understand another person, attempt to create in our mind an analogy of what that person is experiencing so that we can better understand that person. We may try to empathize with a terrorist in the effort to understand what drives someone to become a suicide-bomber. Citizens of a Western nation may have a very difficult time trying to create an analogy that is suitable for understanding a person of an eastern culture. A person seeks understanding willfully through empathy.
I think that there exists a hierarchy of comprehension. We are aware of many things but conscious of only a few. We often drive while in a state of awareness and become conscious when passing a patrol car or a highway accident. We may be aware of our daughters new boyfriend but we become conscious of the young man when the daughter announces their planned marriage.
We are conscious of much and knowledgeable of little. We have knowledge of much and understanding of little. Sympathy leads to consciousness and empathy leads to understanding. A lack of understanding makes it possible for a person to avoid occasions of sympathy because some people prefer the occasion of out of sight out of mind.
Empathy is a form of understanding but it, of course, is not THE form of understanding. Empathy does give us an idea of the difficulty inherent in the process of understanding. It also gives an idea, I think, of the very individualized nature of what understanding is. Understanding is a far step beyond knowing and it must be worked at until we each one become conscious of our particular means to understanding.
I think that some talents are best suited for trying to enhance understanding. I think that the goal of both types of effort might be the same but the techniques are different; but I think that both types of approach to the same goal are necessary and need not be exclusive.
Reality is a multi-layered thing and requires much effort to penetrate beyond the surface. There exists a whole phalanx of ideological enculturation constantly undermining any effort by the citizenry to become an understanding people. Anti-intellectualism must be constantly attacked. I think that the greater the understanding of the citizens of a democratic nation the better the democracy of that nation.