[July 2020] Pastoral Message: Empathy

EMPATHY… This is the first big word I learned in college when I took my first core class as a psychology major. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”[1]

Initially, I wondered whether empathy was the same thing as sympathy but I quickly learned that the two words have different meanings. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand what the other person is going through, whereas sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s suffering. The picture below captures the essence of empathy and sympathy.

To this day, I still remember how the instructor said that if anyone of us wanted to make it in the world of counseling, we needed to learn to empathize rather than sympathize, because when you are sympathetic, you put your understanding above the other, creating an uneven power dynamic in relationships. Then, most often you won’t be able to connect with the person seeking help, leaving them feeling more helpless and even shameful.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the coveted skill to have as a counselor since it shows one’s ability to speak from a shared experience of distress, allowing the suffering one to feel understood. Walt Whitman put it so wonderfully in his 1855 poem, “Song of Myself,” where he said, “I do not ask a wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.”[2] Instead of separating yourself from those who are hurting, you become one with them by crying with them and hurting with them as if their pain were your own.

As I watched our superficial[3] world fall apart in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, I have heard many voices crying out, “Why can’t we just get along?” Surely the world would be a better place if everyone “got along” and were friendly and loving towards one another. However, humans are complex beings and when we are faced with the unfamiliar, we usually become judgmental and fearful.

Although the United States is blessed with diversity compared to other nations, not everyone in this country is exposed to cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity in their daily lives. When I used to live in Texas, a Korean-American sophomore from Baylor University told me about her encounter with an Anglo freshman from Kansas who claimed to have ne