Empathy ≠ Sympathy

The lesson of Jack and Jill

As a creator, what is your purpose?

While attending the Savannah College of Art and Design I remember a talk given by an artist, Magdalena Abakanowicz. During the talk, Magdalena asked something to the effect:

Should the artist be the shaman of the world, or merely its decorator?

This sentiment effected me a great deal. When I look at the work of others and discerning whether to add it to my collection of things I’m always looking for why it impacted me. Notice I did not say I am trying to figure out what the artist was going for?

The reason I never, without first-hand knowledge from the artist, say what the other person’s motives were behind creating something is because I am not them. I am not in their minds. Therefore, any conclusions I make is inferential at best and possibly accusatory at worst. The creation is a thing unto itself, the creator of that work is not me, thus the interpretation says more about me than about the creator of that work. (For the most part, I’m more interested in my own response to a piece than the intent of the artist, which means I usually avoid reading artist’s statements.)


The nursery rhyme Jack and Jill begins:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water. 
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after

At this point, we only have a retelling of the events that transpired. An individual named Jack and an individual named Jill, went up a hill (who and where). Their intention when climbing the hill was to retrieve water in a pale (why). The individual named Jack fell and hurt his head. The individual named Jill also fell.

Any other details are inferred by the reader.

Is Jack a man or woman? Is Jill a man or woman? Does it matter?

I say no. All the demographic information can be stripped or flipped, and it does not alter the story — or its impact on me.

What is the purpose of creating this story? What is meant by “tumbling after”? Why mention that?

The stanza above does not give enough evidence to a wider message. However, it can raise some questions: What is my response to Jack’s injury? Am I happy, concerned, indifferent, and so on? And, is my response morally good? If I were Jack, how would I want an onlooker to feel? And so on.

  1. I’m concerned that Jack was injured. I want to know. This stanza doesn’t say. There is no catharsis.
  2. If I were Jack, I would want an onlooker to feel concerned as well, and maybe assist me in some way.
  3. Wait. Jill was an onlooker. Why didn’t Jill help? Was she injured too? Did her fall stop her from offering assistance?

I had never been introduced to any further stanzas of the poem until recently (thanks Wikipedia). The second verse takes the form:

Up Jack got and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
And went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

One variant has him requesting service by “old Dame Dob” to wrap his injured head.

The quoted variant above points to concepts of individualism. The other points to asking help from another (an expert, so to speak).

In either case, why didn’t Jack get help from Jill?


A third verse, apparently, reads:

Then Jill came in, and she did grin,
To see Jack’s paper plaster;
Her mother whipt her, across her knee,
For laughing at Jack’s disaster.

One variant says that Jill actually caused the disaster.

The quoted variation above points to the concept of schadenfreude, asking us to question whether laughing at the pain of others is good or bad. The other points to concepts of justice and retribution against what someone views as an immoral act — causing injury to another person. It also brings up concepts of sympathy (the opposite of schadenfreude). It also brings up the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Schadenfreude is the purpose of what I’m writing and it seems one lesson of Jack and Jill could be not to take pleasure in the pain of others (assuming Jack did feel unfortunate at his situation).


When I was growing up there was a television show. The show broadcasted home videos submitted by people in the hopes of making others laugh. The audience would vote on which they found to be the funniest, and that family would receive a prize.

This show might even still be running. Having said that, it doesn’t really matter, because consumer-generated content has grown so pervasive and accessible that anyone can do this. One might argue that any website whereby individuals can up- or down-vote content and the creator of that content is paid in some way (either through recognition, page views, or financially) is following this theme. Further, this show may not have been the first of its kind.

What I find fascinating as of this writing, and something I see still in various feeds, is that there seems to be a predisposition for sharing content where people get injured for the purposes of amusement. However, when content shows the injury of an animal, it is shared for the purposes of sympathy.

Why is that? and, is it okay? Further, is deriving pleasure from pain contradictory; or, are they mutually exclusive? Finally, is it possible Jack did not want or need sympathy?