A few years ago, one of my dearest friends and I were having one of our usual debates. The topic was the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone, when you pity her. Empathy is when you feel withher, absolutely relate to her. It is easier to be sympathetic than empathetic, we agreed. That day, years ago, we never considered the possibility of sympathy growing into empathy. It's odd how abstract discussions can be, devoid of the complexities of reality.
A few months ago, a close friend of mine found herself in a series of messy relationships. At first I sympathised. I felt sorry for her. I heard her out as she confided in me. But I was sort of detached from the enormity of her troubles - they were her relationships, her problems.
As time passed, however, I could see that her escalating concerns were wearing her down. My opinionated, resolute, confident, talkative and beautiful friend was becoming weak, fragile, confused and sad. There were days when I couldn't help but be mad at her for her helplessness. I would tell her: "I can't believe how much this has changed you!"
At that point I was done sympathising. I was reprimanding her, although indirectly. At other times, I would hate the people who caused her so much distress. I blamed them. I also became confused. I was preoccupied with her plight and trying to concoct solutions and exit strategies for her. At a ridiculous point, I found myself going back to that debate of long ago, and imagined myself saying: "How's this for empathy?!" But was it? I was mentally and emotionally engaged in my friend's problems. Was that empathy?
When I was in London, her silence from the UAE would worry me. It meant she wasn't doing well. Her sporadic attempts at communication felt forced and sad. I woke up to thoughts of her and took them with me as I juggled my workload during the day. I couldn't imagine how she was coping.
Christmas break was coming up and I was heading home when my friend told me she had solved her problems. She said she had ended her unhealthy relationships, and perhaps found closure. She was still hurt by all the betrayals, mistakes and wrongdoings. But she was no longer allowing people to hurt her or hurt others in the process.
It's been almost a week since I came back to the UAE. I dutifully gave my family my first day back and then arranged to see my friend the next day. When I saw her I embraced her tightly. Another close friend was present, but one I'd invested less in because of my preoccupation with the other. I couldn't say much in front of her, but hoped the embrace was a gesture of reassurance, showing my troubled friend that I was here if she needed me and that I was hopeful of recovery. I needed her to be all right for the sake of both of us.
Later that evening in a one-to-one talk she was on the verge of tears, trying to further tell me about her long debacle. Her expression pained me. She probably had finally realised that her problems had become mine, too, for a day later she assured me she was doing better. My empathy had elicited her sympathy.
I'm so happy this fiasco has ended before the new year. I know 2011 will bring challenges, but my friend and I will see each other through them.
After all, we empathise with each other.
Salma Khalifa is an Emirati graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.