Are You Sympathetic, Empathetic–or Neither? Thursday, Sep 3 2020 

“I know exactly how you feel?” We often say this, but is it really true?

Few situations are identical. However, it’s easier for us to sympathize with someone whose experience is similar to one we’ve been through.

I have great sympathy for pregnant women in the Midwest this summer. With the anxieties of COVID and the social unrest in addition to the challenges of pregnancies during the hottest summer on record, these women must be pillars of strength and endurance. I’m certainly not pregnant now! My pregnancies are long-passed. But I can relate to the discomfort of summer pregnancies while in the midst of frightening circumstances. I really do sympathize with them.

In contrast, I empathize with the struggles of people of color. I’m not Black or Brown, so I can’t know how it really is for them. I can only imagine how it might feel to be Black and entering a store with all white people or question why it appears to me that I’m treated differently.

Sympathy and empathy are similar yet distinctly different words. When sympathetic, we relate emotionally to someone from a point of experience. We share feelings with another person.

Empathy is emotionally distant. We may imagine being in a particular situation but have not experienced it personally. We can’t really know the emotional impact to things we have no reference to ourselves.

If we’ve never been without a meal, how can we know how it is to have little to no food to feed our family for weeks on end? If we haven’t fled our home town in fear of our safety, can we really envision the desperation of leaving all of our friends and family behind to trek hundreds of intensely hot and terrifying miles to seek asylum in a strange land? We don’t personally know the suffering that comes with such a decision.

Our world is currently crying for empathy. People are literally shouting to be heard, to be understood. Everyone benefits from good listening skills, imagining how it might feel to walk in our neighbor’s flip flops, and taking other people’s feelings to heart. Peace will come if we are still and quiet long enough to be even a little empathetic.

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Check out my post, Riches to Rags, on St. Francis and the sweet town of Assisi, Italy and also my website for all of my books.

Expressing Sympathy Tuesday, Aug 5 2014 

“We have no words to express our sorrow.” Really? There are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language. Did you actually run out of all of them? After a death, we wish to express our sadness and offer a bit of comfort to their close friends and family. We say some silly things because we just don’t know what to say. We don’t know how to make things better. One of the most common sentences in sympathy cards is, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.” If you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, you probably received a stack of notes with this sentence. These, and other common expressions such as, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sorry for your troubles,” are fine to start with, but you might stop and think for just a moment. Begin by thinking about the person you are writing to and the one who passed away:

  • Can you say something kind about your friend or their deceased loved one?
  • Perhaps you have a fond memory of them that you can share.
  • Can you remark on their outstanding reputation, personality, or generosity?
  • Did the deceased suffer a long illness or die suddenly?
  • Was your friend involved in their care?
  • Can you identify with your friend’s loss?
  • Do you know of a Bible verse, prayer, or poem that is appropriate?

Expressing a thought imperfectly is better than not saying anything at all. Go ahead and use those common phrases if you can’t come up with anything else. But taking one more minute to think before writing or speaking truly can offer a moment of comfort to someone who is grieving.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Connecting Up Close and Personal Tuesday, Nov 19 2013 

Items from the Washington, Illinois tornado that occurred this past Sunday are being retrieved more than a hundred miles from the site. Those who find such items are feeling the need to return them to their owners. They sympathize with the victims who have lost so much and perhaps may gain some comfort from the tidbits of their past.

Seeing stories on the Internet or newspapers and having physical contact with the people, things, or places they are about is a thousand times different. No matter how badly we feel about what we see in the news, a physical connection marks us in a more meaningful and permanent way.

In the early 1990s I tutored a Lebanese student at a community college. His experiences of the unrest at that time in his country disturb me still. During the early years of the US involvement in Iraq, I met a woman from that country. She told me about her life in Iraq and gratitude for the US aid. I also met a woman from Louisiana who lost her home and business in the Katrina hurricane. I can’t let go of what I learned from these people and know the stories they shared have changed me.

We connect with each other in random ways. Even a brief encounter can be significant. A stranger we never will see or hear from again can trigger a new thought that sends our life on an entirely different path.

Sometimes we also meet someone whom we instantly feel comfortable with. I recently sat next to a woman on a plane who I hope to keep in touch with. Like old friends, Donna and I shared some of our deepest concerns.

We talk about how we are all connected in this world and encounters such as these prove it. Basically, we all want the same things – peace, happiness, good health, to feel loved, and to have people to love. We want employment that is emotionally and financially rewarding, and the ability to live freely and without fear for our personal and loved ones’ safety.

Perhaps today you will receive the gift of connecting with someone who touches you. When our minds and hearts are open to surprise encounters, the possibility for personal and global change is endless.

©2013, Mary K. Doyle

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