Empathy, Sympathy, and Something Better

Good samaritain

My son is having back troubles.  I feel for him. Not only do I feel sympathy for him, I have empathy for him because I went through the exact same thing a few years back. The words empathy and sympathy are cousins, but they don’t mean the same thing. Those distinctions get pretty blurry nowadays,

The word “empathy” is relatively new to we English speakers – barely 100 years old. (link) It comes from the Greek empatheia which yields “in-feeling.”  Simply put, it is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” (Merriam-Webster)

In the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch teaches his daughter Scout a lesson in attempted empathy:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (link)

Walk around in somebody else’s shoes (or moccasins). Get inside someone’s head. The idioms go on and on.

But that’s the quandary – I CANNOT climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it. Nobody can. Except aliens – they seem to be able to pull it off.

I CAN empathize with my son as we discuss his sore back. I can empathize with someone who has lost a parent. I can empathize with someone who is unemployed, because I lived through all of those things. What I can’t do is have have real empathy for my wife when she has been pregnant. I’ve never been pregnant. I can’t empathize with someone who feels victimized or persecuted because of their race. I’ve never lived that. I can’t empathize with someone who feels that they are being mistreated by the Church  because I have never experienced that, either.

I can try to look at their lives from their perspective, but even those attempts are tinted – or tainted –  by my personal background, experience and biases. Learned empathy is not possible, only empathy taught by experience is. We can work towards a version of empathy that comes from increasing our understanding. The dictionary even adds these lesser attempts when defining empathy:

  1. the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.

  2. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. (Merriam-Webster)

Since we can’t actually empathize with someone with whom we have not experienced the same thing, for understanding we turn to things like “imaginative projection” and “vicarious experiences” and try and get as close to understanding as we possibly can. For example, I will never know what it feels like to be pregnant, but after five kids, I have grown in understanding that I now know what not to say to a pregnant woman.

We like to take small bites of empathy. For example, a lot of members went on handcart treks and gained some empathy towards our pioneer ancestors, but of course it is tempered by good shoes, sunscreen, double-layer socks and plenty of food. Some empathy is good, but lets not lose our heads!

Here’s where it gets a little sticky: Empathy (or lack of empathy) is being lauded as the solution to all our political and social dilemmas. The first problem is that perfect empathy is not attainable. There are too many different people with vastly different experiences to have a common understanding which empathy requires. And everyone is busy defending their worldview as the correct world view.

Yet that is what many are calling for. The demands for increased empathy are all around on may topics: race, immigration, sexism, priesthood, etc.

Yet what boggles the mind is that the very act of accusing someone with a lack of empathy is an ironic self-confession that the accuser himself lacks the very empathy demanded. 

Someone who understands what empathy is does not weaponize it, and turn it against another person.

Weaponized, the discussion of empathy becomes a battle cry to further personal, religious and political agendas. Rather than searching for common ground,  if I can try establish that you do not have empathy, then I can shut you out of the conversation. Since I am a white guy, my opinion on matters of race, pregnancy, womanhood etc., suddenly become worthless. Why? Because my opinion is invalidated because I don’t share the same (read “correct”) experiences that entitle me to be part of such a conversation. Unity and progress are rendered impossible with this mindset, as attempts to converse are shut down cold, and battle lines are drawn.

However, we are not off the hook. We are commanded to mourn with those who mourn, and love our neighbors, but this does not require that we have to understand, or even agree with them.

The only person who has ever achieved a state of perfect empathy is the Savior Jesus Christ. The scriptures clearly teach us that he descended below all and suffered the worst of the worst, to give him complete empathy. (Even though the word, or concept of empathy is not found in the scriptures. I am hard-pressed to find anything scriptural that encourages us to try to walk in someone else’s shoes.)

Alma taught, “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11-12)

In the reprimand to Joseph Smith, who was suffering in the Liberty jail, the Lord bluntly said, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8)

In the ultimate act of empathy, Christ suffered specifically so that we don;t have to. He doesn’t want us empathizing with him. “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;” (D&C 19:16)

This is echoed by the voices of living prophets as well. Elder David Bednar said this:

“There is no physical pain, no spiritual wound, no anguish of soul or heartache, no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first. In a moment of weakness we may cry out, “No one knows what it is like. No one understands.” But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He has felt and borne our individual burdens. And because of His infinite and eternal sacrifice He has perfect empathy and can extend to us His arm of mercy.” (link)

Yet the sad truth is that society is running away from the one person who truly understands empathy. As calls for empathy increase in our nation, belief in Jesus declines. As the need for empathy increases, our society turns away from its very purveyor.

Next step? Sympathy. If I can’t fully empathize with what I can’t understand, I can at least feel bad for the people who are suffering. Sympathy is a wonderful trait to have, and I think we could all agree on that – so I won’t belabor the point. But sympathy has a nasty side that can be damaging.

I spent years watching how good-hearted people would cause damage and dependency in African villages they were trying to help. I have also seen it done right. I’ve seen people who, working from a position of sympathy, abandon all principles of work, Law of the Harvest, and self-sufficiency to create generational poverty and dependence on others. Sympathy run amuck.

The simple truth is this: Just because something tugs at the heart does not mean that any response is a worthy response. This applies to our own families, as well as our communities, counties and world. Many homes and nations are reaping what they have sown by misapplication of sympathy.

President Boyd K. Packer mentioned that some “thrive on sympathy, which is generally very low in nourishment.” (link)

Sympathy is often warranted. So many suffer and need help. So many suffer from tragedy – be it natural disaster, health issues, emotional issues or just the painful twists and turn of life. Sympathy can be the “balm of Gilead” to aid them in their struggles. I think when we extend wise sympathy to those in need, we are doubly blessed as givers and receivers.

As with empathy, sympathy is not one of the words found in the scriptures, but there are close companions in the words mercy and compassion. And again, Jesus Christ is the ultimate representation of wise compassion.

 

Here we are. I have spent the first part of this post grumbling about both empathy and sympathy. What is a well-intentioned, kind-hearted person supposed to do?

Here is another way to look at it. Imagine that there is a tree, and some of the branches are labeled compassion, sympathy, empathy, mercy, kindness, patience, selflessness, hopefulness, tolerance, etc.  What would you call this tree full of such wonderful branches?

Charity.

All of those wonderful traits – and more – are offshoots from charity. Or as we know it, “the pure love of Christ.” (link)  Both Mormon and Paul taught of the all-encompassing nature of the Pure Love of Christ.

“And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Mormon 7:47)

What would a political or religious argument become if those traits were in the hearts of the participants? It surely would not be contentious.

“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” (3 Nephi 11:29)

Do your political, family or religious discussions get hot? Do you feel anger or resentment, hurt or betrayal? Do you crave vengeance or violence? Well, there you go: Daddy’s calling.

Can you imagine CNN or FoxNews if the people in the survey groups or sitting at the table had Charity in their hearts? It would make for boring, yet productive television. Something might actually get accomplished!

So how do we go about getting this Charity in our hearts? How do we get the “Pure Love of Christ” to guide our actions, our thoughts, and our tongues? Mormon answered that, too.

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ…”  (Moroni 7:48)

Charity is bestowed as we pray for it. That means it is a gift – a Gift of the Spirit that the Father will send to us through the Holy Ghost. It can fill our hearts. With that Charity in place, suddenly miraculous things can happen:

The Savior, who is the King of Empathy, can show us through the Holy Ghost what he sees. We can see our brothers and sisters with God’s eyes.

Christ can share his perfect love with us as well. We can feel a pure love for all our fellow men and women – no matter what they feel for us.

We can be enlightened and guided in the ways of wise sympathy. We can be taught through discernment how we can best help those in need.

The Gift of Charity can help us stay above the fray. Society tries to change hearts through anger, violence, accusation, judgment, vanity, doubt. It is the antithesis of how hearts are really changed.

I cannot find perfect empathy through my own means – but the Spirit can show me the world through God’s eyes if I am willing and worthy to let him.

“I now realize that in the Church, to effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant obligation to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes. This expanded perspective will open our hearts to the disappointments, fears, and heartaches of others.” (Elder Dale G. Renlund)

Real empathy. Not self-serving or political empathy, but God’s perfect empathy.

And THAT could change the church and world. It is pretty clear that society’s efforts aren’t working out so great. Then again, why should we expect the “arm of flesh” who has turned its back on God to figure out these things, that are really issues of the heart?

The next time we feel like jumping into a heated political discussion, it might be wise to remember that our time would be MUCH better spent bringing souls to Christ – because that is the only thing that will ever fix this mess.

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Comments

  1. Please, please, please invest 3 minutes and watch this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

    A sister was sitting, crying in the library one Sunday. A few months earlier she had lost her 2-year-old daughter. A well-meaning sister saw her and went to console her. Her comment was, “…well, at least your husband still has a job. You can get over this…”

    1. Jeff: I really liked this, and agree with most all of it. I do have a hard time with the idea that we have to climb down in the hole with them to have a meaningful interaction. You, as a Bishop, try to lift from above, and bring them up, rather than get in the hole with them. (Jesus basically said to Joseph Smith, “Oh yeah, I had it worse than you…)

      1. Most of what I took from this is that anytime you show “sympathy” you necessarily place yourself above the person. “Too bad YOU are going through this – I’m glad I’m not.” The most worthwhile advice is not to start any statement of understanding with, “…well, at least.”

        1. I agree that sympathy can come from a place of arrogance – a perfect example is how the government responds to need.

        2. I think sympathy is getting a bad name here. When I learned that a young wife I know lost her baby hours bef birth, I cried for 2 weeks. That wasn’t empathy, I’ve never been in that place. I was feeling grief and sympathy. when I hear that there’s been an earthquake on the other side of the world, and I get out my checkbook, that comes from sympathy. When I fought cancer for a yr I knew my friends and ward members were sympathizing w/ me, and I appreciated it. I personally think sympathy usually comes from a place of love. Sympathy motivates us to help, if we can. Sympathy is not a synonym for tact or sensitivity. I think the video was showing self-centeredness, not sympathy.

          1. I agree that the video only showed the one side of sympathy, but it is a necessary and important trait, as I mentioned in the original post.

      1. I think we all have. But not all sympathy is stupid – that is just all the video showed. And, at the very end, when the bear said” I don’t; even know what to say.” isn’t even empathy – it is merely an honest observation.

  2. Very good article. I recall an experience where I felt empathy with someone going through something similar to what I had, but in talking to her I found that her perception of the experience was so different that her feelings were not anything like what mine had been. So even when we feel empathy, we still need to listen – with charity – to really understand.

  3. Outstanding!

    No political leader or leaders is/are going to make things great or babysit us, and mob rule is even worse. The Lord has restored His church and keeps refining it (and us) because it’s the only thing – a toolbox – which can be ready to pick up the pieces and bring His children to Him. Without the pure love of Christ – charity – we are completely unable and unready.

    It is up to us to accept our responsibility to obey His perfect counsel, magnify our callings (even the “unofficial” ones), and allow Him to change us to be enough like Him to do our part.

    You really, really help me realize how big, how powerful, how all-encompassing the Atonement is.

  4. Thank you for clearly directing us to the solution. Now we just need to spread it around. AuntSue

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