Sympathy vs. Empathy

by | Jan 29, 2018 | 2018, Musings | 0 comments

For 35 years it has been my privilege to walk beside south county families as they encounter all the aspects of normal living. On the positive side, I have seen babies born, I have attended tons of graduation parties, I love going to the weddings and reunions and it is wonderful to be included in family movie nights.

On the not-so-fun side of things, I have spent many hours in the hospital praying with very scared parents, I have officiated at funerals and memorial services for kids and senior citizens and I have held the hand of children as they said goodbye to their parents.

But until recently, I am not sure I really understood the difference between sympathy and empathy.

My introspection began with a wonderful you tube video prepared by Brene Brown. (It can be found at This video has a scene where a guy has fallen into a deep hole. He is stuck there. He is in trouble and suffering.

One guy peers down into the hole above the abyss and says, “Sure sorry this has happened.” He pauses a second and adds, “Do you want part of my sandwich?” At first glance that sounds like a kind response to the dilemma. And at a certain level, it is.

But a second guy appears on the scene. He drops a ladder down into the hole. He walks over to the hurting dude and sits down. He says something like, “I know what its like down here. Its scary, but you are not alone.”

The first guy has sympathy. He can acknowledge it’s a bad situation. He even offers a bit of distraction, but he doesn’t fully enter into the experience. Maybe, he has been in a similar hole and wants to avoid feeling that way again.

The empathic guy has made a vulnerable choice to enter into the dark place his friend finds himself. He willingly chooses to embrace the pain right along with his friend. He may not have answers, but he is present.

As I was thinking through the differences of empathy and sympathy, I thought of Job’s friends. Before they got all “chatty Cathy” on him and dumped a boatload of mostly unwanted advice on his head, they “began to weep aloud. They tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.” (Job 2:12-13)

Now that is empathy.

I am encouraging us all to take some time this week and evaluate our “empathy meter.” Are we quick with advice or patiently sitting with our friends? Are we more interested in having the answers or holding their hands? Are we willing to help carry the burden or just want to instruct them on how to get rid of it?

These are good questions for you and I to explore this week.

As we grow our capacity for empathy, I am convinced the guys in the holes will be glad to see us.


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