There have been several times where I’ve had no words. There are some people who might find that hard to believe about me (I tend to talk a lot), but it’s true. At times I have been known to hustle-try to make myself look better in others eyes by providing some sort of “wisdom” or “advice.” But what it amounted to was me simply floating, fading, smoke filled words to build my ego, or at least save face.
There’s been a series of ads run in the U.S. from a help line for those who are dealing with family members struggling with substance abuse. The commercials usually have two people chatting, one obviously upset about something and the other simply there. The person struggling reveals that their child has a drug problem and then the other person doesn’t know what to say. Or perhaps worse, says something very similar to what I mentioned I do above. The commercials premise is great, helping people help their family members by giving them tools and resources. But, it seems to be lumping two very important things together that should never be linked. Empathy and Sympathy.
I used to hand out sympathy left and right to people. To me, sympathy was pity. Sympathy can also mean having compassion, but often times to show someone sympathy is to show them pity. To say that they are lesser than, weaker than, worse off than myself or yourself, that’s pity. Knowing that I love Jesus and Jesus loves me, I walked around with some sort of arrogant pride in the love Christ has for me, and therefore had pity on other people. Perhaps it was simply my Western, White, American mind that had pity on those who had less than me. Perhaps that is why I still struggle with it. Perhaps, but that’s for another post.
To have pity on someone, only, is to simply put yourself above them. To have pity, only, is to feel bad because they feel bad. That isn’t compassion, that is co-dependency. Jesus showed compassion to others around Him. He wept because He was so overcome with compassion. Even God showed compassion on Jonah in the midst of Jonah’s judgemental pity on Ninevah, by letting a giant weed grow to provide Jonah shade from the hot sun. Jobs friends, on the other hand, had nothing to offer. They didn’t really seem to listen to Job. They simply handed out their advice and in the end, said it was all Jobs’ fault. Not only was this not true, it also wasn’t compassion. It was pity.
Having empathy is something a bit different. Empathy is trying to relate to another person, tying to see what is going on from their perspective, trying to have an idea of what they are going through. I wrote about my daughter last week, grieving saying goodbye to her school and friends she may never see again. I had compassion because she was really hurting. And I also had empathy because I have had to say goodbye to people I knew, not knowing if I would ever see them again. I had to be real, honest and vulnerable with myself in my emotions in saying goodbye to those I knew and loved in order for me to relate and have compassion for my daughter. And I had to dig deep into myself to find the same feeling that she was having.
My sister in law passed away unexpectedly three years ago. Iris was in the middle of grief and mourning. So was I. But, understandably so, Iris’ grief was far deeper than mine. This was her older sister. She shared a room with her growing up. She learned from her, watched her, and spent most of her life with her up until she met me. I had lost all four of my grandparents years ago, and that was a time of grieving for me. But I was young, and both of my siblings are still alive. So, I didn’t know how to relate or even understand what Iris was going through.I hadn’t had that experience. So, what was the only option? Sympathy?
Sympathy as compassion, yes. But not pity. Her walking down this road was also the beginning of my journey of understanding what I was feeling and allowing myself to feel. Thankfully, I was able to lean into my support system of friends, coaches, spiritual directors and others. God began a work in me to become more in touch with my feelings, why I was feeling them and what they were. This also came about from starting down the road of recovery. Sitting in meetings, talking with people and hearing their stories allowed me to dig deep and find those same feelings from past experiences in my own life. What I learned was that simply listening to her, acknowledging what she was feeling and honestly saying I had no idea what to say, was the most empathetic response I could have given. And she was thankful for me sitting in the midst of the darkness with her.
But digging deep, just like loving, is a process that brings about pain. Empathizing with someone going through a hard situation means you are tapping into the same feelings you had after going through a painful situation. We don’t like pain, because, well, it’s pain. It hurts. But when we have the courage to dig deep, be vulnerable and honest with ourselves and tap into those feelings, the joy of building relationship comes through. Empathy and compassion build relationship. Sympathy in the form of pity drives wedges between people. It holds others at an arms distance because we are too afraid to dig deep into ourselves to find those same feelings.
Empathy does not only come in hard times, but also in joyful times. Empathizing with someone when they are joyful of a pregnancy, marriage or promotion can also happen even if we have never experienced those exact things. But again, it comes with digging deep and being honest with ourselves. And even those times of joy can come om pain.
Jesus empathized and showed compassion. Though He was the most courageous of all, my prayer is that we strive for the same courage of our Savior.
Be Courageous. Be honest. Dig deep.