We have all been there. Hearing the voice of someone you love breaking up over the phone and turning into a sob. Listening to a friend hesitate, but then slowly pour her heart out about what her home life is really like. Finding out that there is yet another person you know dealing with a life-altering health issue.
The struggles of others take different shapes – some are close friends and it feels comfortable to speak words of encouragement. Other times it is an acquaintance and we struggle to find the words when we cross paths with them.
And sometimes it really strikes home. Recently I’ve had conversations with three different people who are journeying on a similar path I have walked in the past. Though circumstances are different, I have been amazed at how it has taken me back to that place in my own life.
It’s interesting how we handle past pain. Some move on in a healthy way, choosing to grow from the experience. For various reasons, others have trouble moving on – which is understandable. It’s tempting to say stupid things to try to help the person understand that they will get through to the other side of it. In viewing their situation through our own angle we can minimize their perspective, or we can project our baggage on to them in an effort to relate.
It’s interesting to look at the contrast of sympathy vs. empathy in response to someone else’s struggle. The definition of sympathy is: the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration. The definition of empathy is: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. I don’t think anyone would say that sympathy is bad. But the challenge of empathy is probably not something we can effortlessly achieve. I’m struck by the idea of vicariously experiencing someone’s feelings, thoughts and attitude. To me that would mean visually placing myself in their day-to-day life activities….. beyond sitting across the table from them at Starbucks….beyond dropping off a meal. But before I can even know what they need, I have to embrace empathy. Empathy is required if I’m going to try to understand a road I have never traveled. But I must go there…sympathy and commiseration will only do for so long. I must allow their pain to light my fire of compassion….so that I move beyond words, to meaningful action.
My quest and desire for genuine empathy is rocking my world. I would go to the moon and back for someone whose pain I have shared. But what about the grief of those I cannot relate to? It’s too easy to stand back. How would my world change…how would my relationships change if I could grasp this?
Rather than being blind to pain that I don’t understand, I choose to seek the path of empathy. It won’t always be comfortable, but perhaps it will provide an unexpected shoulder to rest on…. for a soul who desperately needs it.
Hebrews 13:1-3 (The Message)
“Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love. Be ready with a meal or a bed when it’s needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it! Regard prisoners as if you were in prison with them. Look on victims of abuse as if what happened to them had happened to you.”