A few months ago a friend posted the video below on her Facebook wall. I found it very moving at the time and have thought about it more than once since then, particularly as I have spent the last several months watching my mother struggle to recover from a broken hip. The video imagines what it would be like if we could see inside the lives of those we meet in passing. If we knew what they were facing--divorce, childlessness, a cancer diagnosis, chronic pain, a dying family member--would we treat them any differently? Would we be gentler, kinder, more patient and tolerant? I'm guessing we would all like to think that the answer is yes. And yet so often it seems that even with those whom God has put before us, those we are close to, our knowledge of their trials does not always translate to our treating them with charity. If we sometimes find it difficult to be magnanimous towards people we know, are we likely to have much empathy for strangers?
More than once while she was in rehab my mom said of the nursing staff (with whom she was rarely happy), "They don't understand! They don't know what it's like to be in my position!" On one particularly trying day I told her that she was right. They didn't understand, and neither did I. There was really no way any of us could. But I then asked her to consider that she also didn't understand what the nurses were dealing with in their own lives. What problems were they facing at home and professionally as they tried to care for their patients? What health issues or physical pain were they trying to ignore as they worked long hours caring for my mom and others?
The more I think about empathy, the more I question the extent to which it is possible for a human being to truly experience it. I think we are most likely to have empathy for those we love dearly: our children, our spouses, our close friends and relatives. When they hurt, we hurt for them. And yet we can never truly feel what another person feels. We are limited to the body in which the Creator has placed us and the perspective with which He has provided us. With those limitations, the best we can do is to be as caring as we can while we try to understand. And if we have experienced a similar trial, perhaps we can feel some real empathy. But even then, I think empathy is elusive. One person's grief or loss or pain is not going to be the same as another's.
The dictionary makes a distinction between empathy--actually sharing in another's pain--and sympathy--acknowledging and caring about that pain. I think empathy is sometimes seen as having a higher value. Sympathy is a superficial greeting card emotion, whereas empathy is something we experience personally. Yet empathy is rare. Perhaps it is not even all that desirable. Why would we want to include another in our pain? What is gained by our experiencing the pain of another? But sympathy--ah, sympathy. To care about a pain that is not our own and to want to understand and help ease it. That is not greeting card stuff. That is love.