What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy, and which is better? I recently read an article that insisted that sympathy was better, but my research indicates that empathy is held in higher regard by most today.
Sympathy is a much older term, and comes from words that mean “together” and “suffer” or “feel”. Empathy is more recent, coming from psychology, and is a combination of words for “in” and “feeling”. Sympathy acknowledges someone’s pain, and empathy identifies with it.
At first glance it would appear that empathy is better because it goes deeper, but going deeper has some drawbacks. It’s possible to so identify with someone’s pain that you get emotionally overwhelmed by it, and there’s a tendency to refuse to even consider the cause of someone’s pain for fear of being too judgmental.
I know it may sound strange, but pain is often a gift of God. Without pain we don’t know anything is wrong, and if we don’t know something is wrong we can’t fix it. If there’s no fixing what’s causing the pain, the pain is obviously no longer a gift, and it does become a curse. But if there is a cure, the pain is truly a gift.
So what does that have to do with sympathy and empathy? Sympathy allows you to remain far enough removed from someone’s pain to be able to look for a cause, and hopefully help them address it. Empathy refuses to judge, and in an attempt to totally embrace someone’s pain you often end up embracing their sin, and that keeps them from seeking the cure.
The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. But in the same passage he tells us to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:15-21)
Perhaps the best road for us to travel is the path of compassion. Compassion is an emotional response that causes us to take action to relieve someone’s pain. Jesus was often moved by compassion, and it led Him to do whatever needed to be done.
May we care enough to do what needs to be done, even if it doesn’t feel like we’re being empathetic, or even sympathetic.
God Bless, Rick