On the way to school this morning my 15 year old daughter asked me to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy. Bless her heart. I think she just wanted a simple answer, but...her momma works in the ministry of social justice.
I explained that sympathy feels compassion, takes genuine pity, and hopefully responds with some degree of comfort. Empathy, on the other hand, seeks to feel what the other person feels, relates personally and emotionally to the other’s circumstances. It feels the heartbreak, the fear, the injustice, and the desperation. It runs deep and responds authentically.
A few days ago I left the campus early to head across town for an appointment. I made my way into traffic and got stuck at the light at Oak and Harkrider. I looked over towards Walgreen's and noticed a guy flying a sign. "He's new", I thought. I haven't seen him around before. I wondered what his story was and was he homeless or an "entrepreneur" as I like to call them.
I scanned the horizon and saw someone I did recognize crossing the cross walk towards the man on the corner. I will call him "Jacob" for the sake of protecting his identity. I met Jacob my first summer with the Ministry Center. We had just launched the Storehouse and it was a blazing summer day with only one A/C unit working in that old building. I called Jacob's name for his turn to shop. "JAKE" are you ready... and saw a young man in a suit with sweat pouring off of him. He looked at me and said my name is "Jacob". I apologized and told him that I wouldn't get it wrong again. We spent some time talking while he waited in line to shop and I realized that he was both childlike and brilliant and struggled with mental illness.
As I watched him cross the street my mind reeled back to a day earlier when I saw him in another part of town. He was walking as always, his fist in the air screaming at a car that had cut it a bit close as it railed into a local fast food joint. To be honest, I probably would have raised my fist in the air and yelled also but I can get away with it because I don't look homeless. I also knew that Jacob was having one of his bad days because on his good days he wouldn't have said anything. He is one of the most gentle souls I have ever met.