I have been wanting to talk about the difference between empathy and sympathy for a while now. I have been reflecting on my response to my mom in my younger years when she expressed the various aches and pains that she was experiencing. I recall feeling bad for her, but I don’t recall comprehending the depth of the pain that she was going through. As I’m getting older and experiencing my own aches and pains that is a natural part of the aging process, I have been reflecting on the difference between empathy and sympathy, how I responded to her back then, and how I would today.
One of my favorite scripture verses has always been 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
This is a perfect picture of empathy. Sympathy is recognizing that somebody is struggling and offering some words of comfort from a place that while sincere, does not actually comprehend the pain the other person is going through, at least to the same extent as someone who has experienced it themselves. This Scripture verse tells us that after we have gone through a trial, we can comfort someone else going through a similar trial with the same comfort God has given us. That is so powerful!
I personally have some regret because I wish I was more empathic to what my mom was going through as she aged: her painful back issues, her frustration at being limited physically in her golden years, and her unspoken feelings of isolation. But upon further reflection, I find that type of empathy is often the result of growing in wisdom and maturity. It is the exception rather than the rule for younger people who have not experienced the same issues or if they have, it was temporary.
I have come to understand that my mom would hold no grudge against my lack of empathy, just as I hold no grudge against my own children. They simply cannot comprehend what they have not felt for themselves. Indeed, as parents, we typically shelter our children from our infirmities because we don’t want to burden them.
Regardless of our season of life, we can all still strive to become more empathic. How do we do this? I recently heard of Brene Brown and the work she is doing in this area. I wanted to share this video because I think it speaks very directly to all of us as to how we can exercise empathy rather than sympathy, even in those situations where we have not experienced what the person is going through for ourselves. I think it’s worth watching – I hope it blesses you, like it has me, with a better understanding of how to be more compassionate to those around us.
And if you feel a little sad or guilty for not having more empathy for someone you love who is no longer with us, I have empathy for you, for I feel those things as well. I would like to share the comfort I have received from God. He loves each one of us unconditionally where we are at. I also believe those who love us (including my mom) knew we were not yet mature enough to understand. They would want us to continue to grow and learn as we move through each season of our life, gaining wisdom and increasing in compassion, without being weighed down with regrets. The best way to honor their legacy is to live the best version of ourselves each day, without letting the past hold us back from being a blessing to those around us, and by cultivating empathy for others.