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Sympathy vs. Empathy

I’ve come to a most startling realization: its not all about me.  Pfft!  Yeah.  I know.  How can that be?  And by “it”, I mean the world and it does not revolve around me.  I am not the Sun.  I’ve got a newfound sense of tiny-ness.  I’ve been handed a huge slice of humble pie and that stuff is hard to swallow let alone digest.  I think you get the picture.  Don’t get me wrong, I never really thought the world revolved around me but I was just fooling myself to think that I had even a remote idea of what went on in the lives of people around me.

You see, I always thought of myself as a basically ‘good’ person.  I would give a few bucks to the homeless guy on the corner (sometimes, when I was feeling especially philanthropic).  I would make a sad, sympathetic face when people told me of their troubles and nod as if I knew what they were feeling or as if I really cared.  I mean, I cared but I never really cared.  You know what I mean?  We’re taught (hopefully most of us) as we grow up to be respectful of others, to be kind, to be sympathetic but is it enough?  Myself, I had sympathy down to an art form but I never bothered with empathy.  What’s the difference?

sympathy – Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Can you have one without the other?  I believe you can be sympathetic without feeling empathetic and I would even venture to say that empathy cannot exist without sympathy.  Anyone can be sympathetic to someone else’s plight.  Being empathetic?  Not so easy.  My problem with feeling true empathy for somebody was that, unfortunately, I simply did not understand suffering and sadness until I went through it myself.  This is not to say that this has to happen for someone to feel empathy for others, but in my case, this was definitely true.

Up until January of 2011, my life had been ideal.  I’d never experienced any personal health problems.  I’d never had anybody close to me suffer a serious illness or pass away.  My marriage was (and still is, thank God) wonderful.  I’d never really grieved for anything.  How was I supposed to ever feel any kind of empathy for anybody?  I was empathetically challenged.  As I started to hurtle into darkness and pain with my own health problems, my eyes (both physically and spiritually) were being opened.  My life was turned upside-down and I began to feel what others had described to me long before I ever imagined I would go through it myself.  In fact, I never imagined I would go through it myself.  These things just didn’t happen to me yet there it was, happening to me.

It was the slap in the face that I needed to wake up;  THE pivotal moment in my life where I either embraced it or ran from it.  The moment where I either got it or I didn’t.  I get it now.  I get what pain feels like.  I get what loss feels like.  Anger, fear, resentment, sadness, denial.  Heartbreak. Ohhhh, heartbreak.  They call it heartbreak because it really does feel like your heart is broken; it hurts in your chest.  Your heart throbs in pain and in protest.  These are all things I would never wish on another human being and they’re things that I can’t help but feel all over again when someone in my life is suffering.  These feelings wash over me like a tidal wave and brings their pain front and center.  It is the hardest lesson I’ve learned up to this point but I would never take it back.  It was necessary and I’m grateful even.  I’m grateful that I don’t have to act anymore when I look someone in the eye and tell them that I’m sorry and that it isn’t fair.  I no longer feel like a fraud when I hold someone’s hand or hug them in consolation of their grief.  I’m grateful that I’ve learned its not about me.  Empathy is not about me, its about the person on the receiving end.

Along with my newfound sense of tiny-ness, there’s a stirring in my heart that I’ve never felt before. Its the whole reason I began this blog in the first place.  Sympathy alone does not drive a person to do good for others.  Sympathy alone does not drive a person to fight for a cause.  But empathy! Empathy can end slavery, can start movements.  Empathy can drive One to die on a cross for the sin of the world and carry the weight of it all upon His own back.  That’s the empathy I hope to feel even an ounce of for others.  There’s a worship song with a particular line that describes this sentiment exactly:

Break my heart for what breaks Yours.

What breaks God’s heart?  The world is bleeding and He knows the pain firsthand.  He experienced all the pain and suffering as He walked this earth in human form and died bleeding on a cross.  He knows our pain all too well and it breaks His heart to see our own heartbreak.  My heart now seeks for Him to break it for the things that break His own;  to break my heart for His cause.

You might be one of the enlightened lucky ones that feels empathy for others without having had to go through your own desert and I applaud you.  For the record, I am NOT being sarcastic.  I admire those who, own their own, have known how to be truly empathetic to others.  That, unfortunately, was not something I was able to learn on my own.  Empathy is not an easy trait to come by and its not something everyone wants to feel.  Its not pleasant to feel pained for others and its easier to just say you’re sorry and move on.  Who wants to deal with that?  I once thought this way, that it was simply too much ‘drama’ and I could do without it.  It was only by God’s grace that when I started this battle for my life, that many special people in my own life did not run away from the ‘drama’ and stuck around to suffer through it with me.  He led me to a unique group of fearless cancer survivors to show me true empathy.  God had mercy on my once-hardened heart and allowed me to feel the warm embrace of empathy.

I personally don’t want sympathy; I absolutely detest anybody feeling pity for me.  That is the definition of it, isn’t it?  Feeling pity for somebody else’s misfortune?  I’ll pass on that.  I think I speak for anybody that’s ever gone through hard times when I say that pity is the last thing you want to see in somebody’s eyes or hear in somebody’s voice.  Striving for empathy is the only hope in allowing people their dignity in their grief.  Dignity is sometimes the only thing we have left. Sympathy versus empathy?  I think you get the picture.

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