There’s a huge difference between sympathy and empathy. Feeling sorry for others is (in my opinion) the lesser of the emotional responses. But to be put in the place of another’s tragedy, pain, or loss progresses the human connection. To empathize with others is to embrace what they are experiencing, to understand their position. Why is this better? Because to empathize is to be human. Again, just my opinion.
I want to approach this with sensitivity. I originally wanted to write about empathizing with characters and how that allows for a greater reading experience. I could still write towards that end and believe it wholly important for a writer to understand and write with conviction. However, in light of the recent hurricane tragedies, I’m being led down a different path.
I’m going to be completely honest with all of you. I struggle with empathy. On a personal level, I really do have a difficult time putting myself in the shoes of others who are or have suffered. This is not to say my heart goes out to those in pain and suffering; I do in fact have a heart. I just mean I don’t easily put myself in the shoes of others. I don’t know why this is but it is something I’ve been aware of and trying to process through as I get older. I should add that this is not just difficulty empathizing with strangers but even with family and friends! My apologies to any if I’ve ever seemed unaffected by your loss and/or pain. I promise I’m not some stone-hearted, cold-souled jerk. I’m not (I can be a bit of a jerk at times but that’s due to my sarcastic nature). The important thing is I’m conscious of this vice in my life and working towards correcting it.
I have to ask why I struggle to empathize and really dig deep. Is it because I’ve never experienced loss or pain? I’d argue that’s not true. I’ve had family members pass, lost friends, gone through difficult emotional trials, etc. I’m not immune to those natural occurrences while going through life. None of us truly are unless you live alone, devoid of human contact, which is unlikely.
I think I struggle with empathy because I don’t jump into the pool right away. My wife can attest to this best but I need time to process things. I am not reactionary. Things come at me and I step back, weighing the toll and consequence. I would argue this is emotional maturity, however, if I deny myself immediate empathy, then do I risk denying human connection and relationships with others?
We want to feel loved. To love and be loved back is the greatest human experience. But with the good comes the bad and sometimes difficult things that cannot be planned for. My journey in life is about people. I’ve always known that. As a writer, I need people. I need to understand them and know what makes them who they are. It’s essential.
I don’t write any this to say I do not empathize with those in need of help. My heart goes out to them and I pray daily that they receive whatever they need. I’ve watched plenty of recovery coverage and it actually stirs my heart to see people helping each other. There’s no question of race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc. It’s a matter of helping because they can.
If I were closer to those affected by the hurricane, I’d like to think I would be there, helping wherever I can. I went with the youth group I was helping with to Galveston, TX, after Hurricane Ike struck years ago. We spent more than a week helping where we could, joining with another church ministry. It was a great experience for me. It taught me to be selfless and compassionate to those affected by tragedy. While I struggle to empathize, I do not struggle with compassion. My heart aches and I pray and hope that those in need find joy restored and pain healed. My prayers are that the country will come together and provide and give ceaselessly to see those who lost their homes find restoration to what was lost. To see the hungry fed and families reunited.
Little can be done by writing a blog. I understand that but my hope is people will find it in their hearts to help wherever and however they can. To do so showcases the true heights of humanity. Our ability to put others before ourselves should restore hope. We’ve done it as humans on more occasions than can be recorded and remembered. It’s in us to prevail.
Call to Action: Donate wherever and however you can. Look online for charities if you can’t physically go and help those affected by the hurricanes. Simple.