The words sympathy and empathy are, according to the dictionary, synonyms. Many people use them interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. I can sympathize with pretty much anyone if I want to, but there are many people I cannot empathize with. For that I am thankful.
So what’s the difference? Let’s look at a few examples.
I can sympathize with a starving child in a third world country or even here at home, but I can’t empathize because I have never truly been hungry. I don’t know what it feels like to not know where my next meal will come from, or where my next ten meals will come from.
I can sympathize with the victims of a devastating earthquake, flood, or tornado, but I can’t empathize with them because I have never been the victim of a natural catastrophe of that magnitude. The worst natural disaster I’ve experienced was the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington state, and the worst of that was a inch of ash in my front yard.
I can sympathize with a person who has been diagnosed with cancer, but I can’t empathize with them because I have never had cancer myself. I’ve never had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. I’ve known people who have, and I feel sympathy for them, but I don’t know, can’t know, how they feel.
But there are some people I can empathize with. I can fully understand and know the pain of someone suffering from depression. I’ve been there and have not forgotten how bad it can be. I not only feel sad for those suffering from depression, my heart aches for them and I know the struggles they are facing each and every day. I can empathize with them.
I can empathize with someone who has lost a beloved pet. Many years ago I lost my dear cocker spaniel Bette who had been with me for 18 years. I loved that dog, and I miss her still. When someone tells me they have lost a pet that has been in their family for years, I can understand and know how they are feeling.
I can empathize with someone who has been sexually assaulted. I have personally experienced the pain, shame, and fear as a victim myself. I know the negative thoughts and shame that are all too common for a person who has been raped. I also understand the anger that can poison the victims mind and soul.
I can empathize with someone who has lost one or both parents to disease. Both of my parents died of cancer when I was far too young to lose them. When I hear that someone has lost a parent, I know how they feel. And I can relate to how they will likely feel even years later.
So here is my challenge to you: try to empathize with those you can. It is natural to want to forget the difficulties of the past, but if we do that then we have endured those difficulties for nothing. But if we use our trials to empathize with those who are experiencing the same or similar trials, we can be a blessing to help them through. When you truly empathize with someone, and not simply sympathize, you are better equipped to know how to respond to their pain and challenges.
We live in a fallen world where bad things happen to good people. My challenge to you is to make the world a better place by using the knowledge you gained from difficult experiences to help someone else. Sympathy can lead us to send money for food to feed starving children in Africa or aid to tornado victims in another state, and that is good. But empathy can lead us to develop deep relationships with others, and be blessed in the process, and that is even better.
9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
10 If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.