From the Pastor: Empathy vs sympathy

Staff Writer
Runnels County Register
Gary Karschner is the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Miles.

The other day I was talking to a friend about an event I had just experienced, and I knew he understood what I was referring to when he said, “I know exactly what you are talking about”. This brings up the words sympathy and empathy. I learned of both through classes I took years ago, but the two words are just as real now as they were back in my days of slate boards and chalk. Let me give you an example of both.

Sympathy is offering a feeling of compassion for what a person has just gone through. Feelings like the loss of loved one, or having just experienced a traumatic event, cause folks to become compassionate and offer words of sympathy. We offer words of support because we maybe have had that happen to us before. It is words from the heart to comfort a hurting person or family. Sympathy is emotional.

Empathy is reality. Empathy is less emotional, but more true to the event because we have had that very thing happen to us. When my Hyundai and I had my run in with Bambi, many people offered sympathy and then they offered words of empathy showing they knew exactly what I had experienced. They offered words like “those suckers come out of nowhere and there is nothing you can do”. Words like, “That sound of metal and plastic bending and breaking is something that will keep you up at night.”

Let me offer you some things most people can empathize with. Have you ever banged your pinkie toe on the coffee table? Have you ever licked an envelope and gotten one of those tongue paper cuts? Yeah, those are the ones I’m talking about. Have you ever walked around all day only to realize you had mis-buttoned your shirt or blouse, and no one had been kind enough to mention it to you? Okay, maybe that was just me. Have you ever locked your keys in the car? Yeah, how many times? Empathy is having done the same thing a person is telling you about. Sunday, the strange topic of toilet blockages came up and how you have to do such and such to get it working. Anyone ever have such problems? THAT is empathy. You feel sorry (sympathy) for their problem, but you have empathy for them because you have really had that experience.

There are some things men and women can never compare empathy notes about. Childbirth is something men will never understand. Not catching a football with your hands, but still painfully catching the ball is something women will never understand.

Ladies and gentleman, when did you experience a moment of empathy? I rest my case.

The views and opinions expressed by Gary Karschner are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Gannett Media.