“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.