The Linguistics of Disability, or, Empathy > Sympathy

In September 2017, Uncanny Magazine published my short story, “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand.” It’s a story that deals with being different and disabled in the first person, and in some particularly angry ways. Afterwards, I had some interesting conversations about why I wrote it in the first person. The comments included: The story makes people uncomfortable. It has a very strong voice. People might not want to picture themselves as inside the character. It’s too scary.

One reviewer addressed the story without ever mentioning the narrator. I heard afterwards: a story like that may be more popular when written in the third-person point of view.

But for my purposes with the story, writing third-person point of view felt a lot like sympathy does, when it is misapplied.

Many of us are taught young that sympathy is What One Does When Shit Happens. Hell, there’s a whole aisle of cards for that.

For my story, I didn’t want my readers to feel sympathy. I wanted to invoke empathy. To demand it. I wanted readers to feel what the main character felt, to imagine being her. I wanted them to experience her anger as well. And that, for many, was uncomfortable.

Expressions of sympathy, heard or said, can include many things—including comments about strength, of inevitability, of inspiration. They often hit the ears of the hearer with a different kind of impact than the speaker meant them. Often, such expressions aren’t a way to express support. They’re a way to establish distance.

“I think you are so strong.”

On the sliding scale of sympathetic statements after sharing bad news, or a tough day, or venting about a bad doctor or a tough outcome, there are highs and lows. The best of them can act as a bridge toward a bigger conversation. The worst can act as a wall that separates the lucky from the unlucky.

“I think you’re an inspiration.”

Some of these statements have the benefit of being non-helpy and non-advice-ridden. But they’re kind of useless except as filler that makes the speaker feel good about themselves (and sometimes a little superior), while doing little for the recipient.

“I don’t know how you do it.”

When I was younger, someone close to me got a tough diagnosis, and I was frightened for them. I wanted to comfort them, and the tools I had were inadequate. I turned to sympathy, saying, “I’m so sorry this is happening,” because I wanted to say something.

“(I think) It is God’s will.”

It was a statement that opened the door to more discussion, and that was good. Sometimes sympathy is useful like that.

“I wish this wasn’t happening to you.”

Other times, I’ve said something that has, in retrospect, been not only useless, but actively drawn a line of demarcation between me and someone else, and I wish I hadn’t. I’ve said, or thought many of the following: how brave. How strong. I don’t know if I could deal with whatever this person is dealing with.

“I feel your pain.”


Beneath sympathetic phrases lies a chasm of distance, and it’s easy for both the speaker and the recipient to fall in. And once you’re in it, it’s hard to climb back out.

“I want you to call me if I can ever help.”

I’ve heard someone say, “How did this happen? You did everything right.” In a culture of sympathy, that’s the bargain we’ve made: there’s a line drawn between people, between I and you. It’s a feeling related to that fear of “this could happen to me too.” There’s also a little bit of curiosity. If you, the person experiencing the problem, could just tell me a few more details about this thing that is happening, I am certain that I could feel more sympathy towards you.

And that’s freaking dangerous.

And although sympathetic statements often start with an “I”—I think / I wonder if / I’m so sorry / I feel your pain—they leave a residue of “how can I avoid this,” or ward it off behind for the listener to mop up. Especially if the listener resists sharing more details. Then there’s resentment, a feeling that a kind outreach has been batted away. Even if this desire for details and the resulting resentment of the other person, so that the speaker can feel better, is based in fear.

“I’ve heard whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

It’s the kind of fear that paints good health as a result of good behavior, good genes, or good morals instead of just luck. It’s the kind of fear that renders illness and disability as a reckoning, and worse, as a kind of pity porn that those dealing with a diagnosis are expected to reciprocate for everyone who gives them their time.

“I want you to tell me everything. Don’t worry, you won’t gross me out.”

Sympathy contains the kind of fear that is often an undernote to the life of someone with chronic disabilities. That it’s something you did, a set of fail points that someone else can see, evidenced by what is happening. That’s the chasm—the distance. That’s the ugly underside of sympathy.

“This could be a blessing in disguise.”

Sympathy doesn’t necessarily see the person. It sees the problem and speaks to it. It takes as much as it offers. And it doesn’t offer much besides the speaker’s presence.

“Think on the bright side.”

But look at the difference between the statement above and the statement below.

“Is there anything else you want to share with me?”

Empathy listens. Empathy might not say much, and when it does, it could be an action, not words. Empathy (unlike the American healthcare system) understands that disability and illness is not an either/or. It’s a sometimes. It’s a thing that happens.

“You’re making a whole lot of sense, this is infuriating.”

Empathy can be uncomfortable. It means instead of looking at a person, projecting your feelings onto them, you need to try to understand what the person is seeing. Feeling. Experiencing empathy is often easier than having to be grateful for sympathy.

“That does sound really frustrating.”

The origin of the word sympathy is sym-pathos, or “feeling-with.” For empathy, it is em-pathos, or “feeling-in.” In the current era, especially when it comes to disability, while empathy has maintained that interiority of feeling, of being within a circle of support, sympathy has almost become a kind of taking. A feeling-for. In its worst instances, sympathy becomes a kind of chest-thumping grandstanding, where the act of feeling sympathy is more important than whatever has happened to create that pathos, that feeling that could be given any number of prepositions: with, in, for, to. There is a sense of otherness to sympathy. A sense of warding, sometimes. A silent phrase on the end of the statement that distances the speaker from the thing being said and the person they’re talking to.

“I know you like [apples], I’m going to leave some here in case you want them later.”

Empathy sometimes doesn’t even get expressed in words. It is actions. It’s the delivery way a community quietly (or loudly) comes together to support someone, without expecting anything from them in return. It is the person who sits with you silently until you are ready to speak.

“I’m listening.”

In its best forms, an empathetic community would be populated with doctors and nurses as well as family and friends. It’s incredibly empowering to have those gatekeepers to feeling better talk as if they’re on your side, rather than in opposition.

“Want me to come by and walk your dog/feed your cat this week?”

Empathy is a matter of standing in the place of or with versus speaking to or for.

“How are you feeling about things?”

In the linguistics of disability, the difference between empathy and sympathy is a matter of prepositions.

“You’re right. This totally sucks.”

It’s a matter of trying to see things in first person versus third.

And that’s why writing in the first person is important to me, especially in science fiction and fantasy, and especially with stories like “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand.” It might not be pleasant, but doing so is a way to provide that perspective which so often is othered, distanced, and given sympathy, not empathy. To narrow the gap between one point of view and the next.


Fran Wilde

Two-time Nebula winner Fran Wilde writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and kids, with seven books, so far, that embrace worlds unique (Updraft, The Gemworld) and portal (Riverland, The Ship of Stolen Words), plus numerous short stories appearing in Asimov’s,, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, Uncanny, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” (Uncanny, 2017), was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award, and won the 2018 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. “A Catalog of Storms” (Uncanny, 2019) was a 2020 Hugo and Locus finalist and a 2019 Nebula finalist. Fran directs the Genre Fiction MFA concentration at Western Colorado University and writes nonfiction for NPR, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

photo by Bryan Derballa

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