Sympathy is cheap. It holds our attention for a little while, but once the sad feelings wane we move on to the next tragedy. Sympathy is perfect for the six-second-attention-span generation: it is a tweet with the correct use of a hashtag, or buying a card with a picture of a sad bear on it. “With deepest sympathy…”
But how deep can sympathy ever really go?
Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, but they are distinctly different. Sympathy is defined as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”; empathy is the ability to actually understand and share in the feelings of another person. You’ll never see a “with deepest empathy” card because empathy doesn’t buy cards. Empathy cooks meals for a family wrapped so deep in grief that they cannot bear to leave their beds; empathy sits up all night with a friend while she talks through her dilemma with you. Empathy costs something and compels you. Bursting forth and spilling out of the sides of a Hallmark envelope, empathy gets waist-deep and gets involved, while sympathy looks on, wrings its hands and feels “so bad” about it all.
There are several times in the New Testament where we read how Jesus was “moved with compassion”. The original phrase used to describe his state at these times were actually coined by the New Testament scholars. They couldn’t find words in the entirety of the Greek language to truly convey what they were trying to say, so instead they described it as a kind of stirring in his bowels – a deep internal agitation that caused him to act upon whatever it was that was causing the ”bowel movements”.
Jesus often stretched forth his hand to heal or pronounced forgiveness upon sins, but the kind of things that empathy compels us to do may be quite different to that. After witnessing my friends who are young mothers strive to raise their children and accomplish their own ambitions in the face of prejudice from society and the practical challenges of raising children on a slim budget in the UK, I was compelled to put my visual skill to work, creating a project that addressed the myths and misrepresentations of young mothers and their children, while celebrating their triumphs in the face of challenges. Working on the Young Motherhood project reminded me that empathy is participation: it is living alongside people and getting stuck in the emotional and at times physical trenches with them. It is demanding, it is time-consuming and it can be draining, but the results are deeply humanising, and always worth it.
Sympathy is ‘feeling sorry’ for someone, holding them at an arm’s length and reciting empty platitudes and hollow-sounding Bible verses from a comfortable distance. For those wounded by life and the ignorance and indifference of people, sympathy can be quite patronising and even alienating. “I feel so terrible that your life is so bad,” it often seems to shout across a canyon of cushioned detachment.
Empathy is what is needed in reaction to the injustice in our communities. Empathy is how we can better respond to those who come to our churches from different backgrounds and life experiences from our own. It is how we connect with and value people as whole and distinct individuals, and it’s only through engaging emotionally, that we can bridge the gaps of life experience, (mis)understanding and, one of the greatest sins of all, apathy.