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.
Empathy hears the story and and plucks out the tangible things that are needed in the moment and seeks to address what it can. Empathy remembers the storm in the forecast and offers a raincoat and a tarp because it’s terrible to feel cold AND wet. It responds from a place of connection through common experience.
Her next question was a good one. One I’ve heard from staff, interns, and volunteers. How can we empathize when we’ve never even come close to experiencing a fraction of what so many of our clients have gone through? How can we relate?
Romans 12:15 tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Empathy isn’t produced by identical circumstances. It comes when we allow ourselves to connect to the feelings we experience at the core of our humanity. You may never have experienced eviction, but can you relate to what it feels like to be overwhelmed with anxiety, uncertain if God will provide, not sure where to turn. You may never have been abused, but can you relate to the feelings of fear, betrayal, and helplessness?
When we allow ourselves to sit in a place of suffering with our neighbors, we may not have all the answers, but we can offer something that no money, or case plan, or voucher can come close to. The beauty of true human connection.
Spring Hunter - Executive Director
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