As a priest and pastor, having worked in clinical and institutional settings as well as parishes, I was taught the “skills of empathy”; connection, vulnerability, silence, accompanying, not always providing answers. I am also a victim of my empathy, receiving so many emotional signals from those around me and internalizing them so quickly that I can easily leave situations overwhelmed, sad, frustrated or confused. I have to work hard to manage these feelings in order to come out of some encounters in tact. When I do, it is a sacred, powerful connection. When I don’t, it’s a holy mess!
In the past few years, I have read many pieces on empathy, and especially how it differs from sympathy. Empathy has become the only true, appropriate response to another’s tragedy. Sympathy has become the catch all word for all the awful things people say. It has become synonymous with trite and detached. There are helpful ways and even more unhelpful ways to support people in pain. Empathy is often used to describe the helpful ways and sympathy the unhelpful ways. These labels are inaccurate and unfortunate.
A small video has been going around featuring a bear, a fox and an antelope. The fox is in despair and ends up symbolically in the bottom of a hole. The bear resists the temptation to fix the situation, or force the fox out of the hole and stays there, taking on the same grey cloud that is above the fox’s head.
The antelope pokes through the hole, asking, “Would you like a sandwich?” The message is the bear is showing empathy, which encourages connection, and the antelope is showing sympathy, which creates disconnection.
Except the the antelope is actually being more helpful than we think.
The root of both empathy and sympathy is pathos or feeling. They are different. Sympathy is translated “with feeling” and empathy, “in feeling”. Sympathy depicts two separate beings experiencing something similar and feeling a sense of union in that feeling. We often talk about sharing political or religious sympathies with someone or a group. It is also our primary response to a disaster which is outside of our experience like a typhoon or horrendous death of a young person. I can not go to the seaside of the Phillipines and experience the immense loss of home, livelihood, family and friends after Typhoon Hayan, but I can sympathize, reaching into my own minimal understanding of loss and do what I can to support them.
Empathy is a sharing of feelings. For some, it is an actual experience of feeling the feelings of another. More often, it is an act of imagination, allowing yourself to imagine losing who or what is most dear to you, not just for a second, but staying in that pain and grief so that your friend is not alone in his pain and grief.
The thing about empathy is, it is crippling. It means taking on pain that is not your own, on top of your own pain. It is a huge sacrifice and powerful. But it is not sustainable.
I grew up in a rural community. Our small town had 1,000 people. My stepfather attended most wakes that occurred in the 100 yr old family funeral home. He, like most people in our community, went to every wake, one every 1-2 weeks. If he went to every wake and empathized with every mourner he had gone to visit, he would have come home a whimpering mess. That is a lot of grief. What brought him to the funeral home, and what our neighbours appreciated, was his sympathy, that he took the time to go, share some memories, and make a small donation to their charity of choice. And then there are all the people who made food and dropped it off at homes of mourners. It is almost an apology for not being able to empathize, “I can not possibly enter into your pain, but I can make a casserole that you can put in your freezer so that, when you feel ready to eat something, it will be there.” That’s sympathy; an acceptance of one person’s pain into a whole community.
Back to the bear, the fox and the antelope. The antelope does say and do some really unhelpful things. Her responses like, “At least you know you can have more children” are not sympathetic, they are insensitive and detached. They are the words of a person who does not recognize another’s pain, but is desperate to dismiss negativity, be the hero and problem solver. Her responses are more about her own ego than about the poor fox. At the same time, when the fox is ready to crawl out of that hole, the antelope will be there to help her over the edge, and there will even be sandwiches waiting.
Empathy is a brutally profound experience. It is also rare, and so the word needs to be reserved for those experiences and actions that are truly a walking in another’s shoes. Empathy requires a keen balance between your feelings and theirs, knowing which is which. It tears you up, it comes home with you, lingers in your dreams and distracts you from daily tasks. A regular practice of empathy requires careful self-examination, often with professional support.
Sympathy says,”I feel awful about what you are going through, and I can’t stop thinking about you.”
Sympathy says, “I can’t sit with you, but I can make sandwiches.”
Sympathy knows there is time and a place to be with people in pain, and that not every one needs to be in the room.
Sympathy recognizes that sometimes people need to be left alone.
Sympathy is humble, knowing that one can not possibly empathize with every situation.
Sympathy says, “Even if I don’t know your pain, I know you need support, and I will be here when you are ready to tell me what you need.”
When we express our sympathy, we aren’t saying, “Your pain is insignificant.” I mean, really, who of us actually thinks that? When we express sympathy we are saying, “This is not much, but it is what I can offer, and it is yours if you need it.” It is what motivates a group of people to raise money for clean water for a community of people they have never met. It is what lets a boss say, “take a few more days” to a grieving employee.
Sympathy is what most of us practice; it is kindness and generousity, and it is a good and holy thing.