While we’re on the topic of empathy, I think it’s more than fitting to address the age-old difference between “empathy” and, what I consider, it’s ugly twin sister, “sympathy”.
Sympathy isn’t all that ugly; it’s better than not caring at all. And, it’s a totally fair reaction to those commercials you see on late-night TV asking for donations.
But, sympathy is a very disconnected version of caring. It’s having pity for someone who is struggling with something, merely acknowledging that they are faced with strife. Even if well-intentioned, sympathy comes along with the risk of making someone feel like what you’re thinking and saying is something more along the lines of, “Man, it sucks to be you. I’m lucky this isn’t my problem. I don’t know how you’re going to deal with that.”
Empathy, on the other hand, is a nice big step beyond recognizing that someone is dealing with something. Being empathetic involves an effort to put yourself in that person’s shoes and make an effort to understand what they’re going through, to try and get a sense as to what it feels like for them.
Of course this is applicable when someone dies or when someone gets diagnosed with cancer. But, empathy is an every day sort of thing that has no real limits.
It’s thinking about why your child keeps being mean to their siblings and friends, and not just incessantly sending them in time out.
It’s figuring out why your parents have trouble living a healthy lifestyle, and not just assuming they’re lazy.
It’s trying to understand why your friend is stuck in a bad relationship, and stop just getting frustrated with them about being too scared to leave.
It’s making an effort to help your spouse figure out how to cut back on the amount of alcohol they’ve been drinking every week, and not just thinking they’re weak and hopeless.
Empathy is not easy. It’s more work than just feeling sorry for someone. But, there is nothing more powerful than taking an extra step to try and connect with someone and actually feel with them…than just feel bad for them.