Responding with Empathy, Not Sympathy
November 26, 2017
Sympathy is not empathy, which a recent blog post by John served to highlight, begging the question: How do we respond to tragedy? With sympathy or empathy?
(Martha) Today we want to welcome you into our living room. We’ve just been sitting around just being together. And we’ve been talking about John’s post about the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The small town. We live in a small town, even smaller than that one but we’ve been expressing our hearts. And I just felt that we wanted to invite you in because I know there are many like you who are feeling it, talking about it, praying about it. And John wrote a post, that I’m going to just introduce it by saying it is a post of empathy. That’s a very– Empathy is a very rare thing. It’s not sympathy, which is pity and feeling sorry for. But empathy is entering into the situation with your heart. And empathy, here’s the definition that I think tells it: Empathy is feeling that you are in it and share another’s feelings. You’re sort of putting yourself in their shoes. And weeping as them, not for them. Being in it, as Carole will be able to tell you how she’s seeing that. But empathy is what John had. Tears, identifying with the people who are left, identifying with their suffering and weeping for them. And it’s a very passionate, personal post. And Jennifer, would you read a little bit from it?
“I heard an interview yesterday with Stephen Willeford, the man who stopped the evil shooter in Sutherland Springs, TX, and Steven Crowder, known for Louder with Crowder, and I couldn’t stop crying. Because of things going on in my life, I had to listen to it over a 5-hour period. While listening, I teared up several times, but by the end, I was weeping! The reason I cried was because of something some people might miss. This massacre in Sutherland Springs was perpetrated on a family, on a community, and against love.
“We’re not talking about gun rights, gun control, PTSD, or a madman; we’re talking about PEOPLE who belonged to a small church, all of whom were shot and about half of whom were killed in cold blood. And we’re not talking about just churchgoers either, but a family! These are people who lived and worked together, and loved each other. They dwelt together daily with all their foibles, idiosyncrasies, failings, and life experiences. These were actual people who saw each other’s victories as well as stupidities. They weren’t just common acquaintances who happened to agree theologically. This was a family who lived with one another—DAILY!
“People who haven’t been a part of a small group like this might not understand. For instance, the Las Vegas massacre involved people at an event who had similar interests, but they weren’t family. This was an attack on a small community with an even smaller church of believers. These people had known each other for generations. They knew each other‘s mothers and fathers and children and cousins. It’s not about the building; it’s about the people and their lives.”
(John) Well, one of the fascinating things that I saw yesterday was after I talked to you [Jennifer], and after you described to me what most people do and what this post does. And I was like: inform me, educate me, tell me what is happening. And you said that, well I want you to say it but… I clearly saw the difference in how people respond and then we, you know, we’ve had proof of that. So could you tell me, tell me and tell us again what you said to me yesterday, Jennifer?
(Jennifer) Um, what I saw about John’s post when I read it, and I cried reading it. And the truth is I’ve cried every day, sometimes several times a day since this happened. And it’s been a very personal response to this, which doesn’t necessarily happen to me every time. And with John’s post what I saw so clearly is that he was highlighting the personal, the people, the individuals. Their life stories, their uniqueness, that it was not about some group out there. It was not about some evil over here. It was… All of these things are part of it but I told him that I knew for me personally – and I would speak for me, but I knew I had company – when things are really painful, sometimes it’s easier to look at it from a distance. We prefer to do it; we won’t go into the deeply personal. And we prefer to stay in the realm of sympathy, looking from afar, which is more of a mental, “Aww…” You know, it’s not insincere. There’s nothing insincere about sympathy, but it isn’t personal. Sympathy— There is distance with sympathy. We look at a person in something that’s happening to them and we say, “Aw, I feel terrible about that. That really is terrible.” But we are not with that person in there. We are not imagining such a thing in our own life and putting ourself in their shoes. Empathy does that! Empathy bridges the distance and puts us in the box with that person. And the Holy Spirit is the enabler of this every single time. When I am willing, He will absolutely ignite parts of my life and bring me into a kinship with that person, that situation. Which is devastatingly painful. Empathy is not comfortable; it is not easy. It can be a real agony depending on where the Lord is with you in that. And a lot of us prefer to stay out of that and to keep a distance.
And so most of the things that I’ve read about this massacre have been distancing. They have been about firearms in the hands of madmen. They have been about security in churches and [how] churches should take more precautions. They have been about the trends and cultural changes that are producing these psychos. And they have been about, “Where is the hand of God? Has the blessing of God been removed from the country? Is this God’s judgment coming down?” There are all these different things and it is irrelevant as to whether or not they’re valid, or there’s a point. They all have one thing in common. And in this case, they all have one thing in common, both the Christian response and the response of the world and the unbeliever: it’s distance. Yes, God is sovereign, but if that’s as far as you’re willing to go, is to say, “I don’t understand, Lord, but I know You were over it…” That’s not empathy. And I’m not sure that you’re willing to step into the true compassion of Christ, to be where He wants you to be in this, whether it’s prayer, whether it’s outreach to this actual community, we don’t know. And I don’t think you will know unless you’re willing to go into His heart for a person, for the people.
And, and so what I saw about John’s post was that it was impossible for me to read it and keep a distance. It was impossible for me to read his post and to remain disconnected from the families, from the babies, from those left behind who now are looking at their lives with these gaping holes. And while they have Christ – that is not in dispute. While they have Jesus, while they have each other as a community to grieve with, that doesn’t mean they don’t have to walk out every day with this nightmare. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to walk out with the Lord what it means that they’re in this. What it means for themselves, what it means for the children who now don’t have parents or a parent, or parents who are burying their children before them. Which, I don’t have children but I’ve heard is a parent’s worst nightmare – for their child to go before them. So there was no way for me to read John’s post and not see, not feel, not be in it with them, because they are people and it is— If you belong to God, then they are family as well. It’s personal! It’s personal.
Responding with Empathy, Not Sympathy – Episode #573 – Shulamite Podcast
We found it impossible to talk about the massacre in Sutherland Springs, TX without empathy. Sympathy is not empathy, which a recent blog post by John served to highlight, begging the question: How do we respond to tragedy? With sympathy or empathy?