In our quest to experience and offer charity, I believe that the differences between sympathy and empathy are important distinctions to make. In one of her books, wise teacher named Brene Brown points out that sympathy, while well-meaning, is usually divisive, it draws a firm line between my experiences and your experiences. If you offer me sympathy you might say “Whoa, I’m glad I’ve never had to go through that, it sounds awful.” Or maybe “Wow, do you think there’s anything you could’ve done to prevent this?” or “What have you done to try to fix it?” or “Have you ever considered that this is just part of God’s plan for you and He knows best?” Sympathy illustrates that it’s me over here and you over there, and you’re uncomfortable with the place I’m at right now.
As we develop our ability to offer empathy, we realize that although our experiences may not be exactly the same our humanity is. Empathy realizes that my deepest sadness probably feels a lot like your deepest sadness and despite our differences, we are bound to each other by similar emotions. As we experience hardship, loss or grief for ourselves (or seek to learn from the experiences of others), we begin to see the difference between feeling bad for someone and feeling bad with someone. It takes practice, sensitivity, patience and maybe a few well-placed questions (but often just a closed mouth), to sit in heartache or ride grief right alongside a friend without trying to resolve it.
Here is an example: Those who become intimately acquainted with grief know she’s a guest who routinely overstays her welcome. She demands attention at inopportune times and she’s agitated when you put her off. An empathetic friend is ok with that. If needed, an empathetic friend will come to you, knowing she needs to allow extra space in her visit to accommodate grief. She will expect grief to waltz in unannounced and stay as long as she pleases. On the other hand, a sympathetic friend who is still learning empathy, may, in her need to act, rush over and try to usher grief out the door. She may dole out unsolicited advice on how to shorten grief’s visit while asking her to go take a walk or she may think it best to remind you that grief’s visit will eventually end. Those who know grief know that once she’s made her appearance, she rarely ever leaves your side, but she does eventually quiet down and settle into the flow of your life. She will still make surprising outbursts but you will be more familiar with her by then and have ideas on how to acknowledge her without giving yourself over to her. An empathetic friend will know this and will remain accessible as you come to this knowledge yourself. A sympathetic friend may not but it’s not because she doesn’t want to offer compassion in the way you need it, it’s just because she and grief haven’t gotten to know each other so there’s still some awkwardness between them. You hope the two won’t meet anytime soon, but if they do, you will doubtless be there to sit with her and as she learns you won’t feel self-righteous. You’ll just feel sad.
Is there any question which the Savior offers us?