On Empathy and Action

It does seem that the world is a little lacking in compassion these day. We can’t force other people to be more compassionate, but we can work in our own lives to be more compassionate.

Empathy and Action are both steps on the road to a more compassionate life, but I believe we have to look at them together.

Empathy without action isn’t worth much, and action without empathy can be more harmful than helpful.

Let’s look at empathy, often confused with sympathy. But where sympathy is acknowledging a person’s pain or hardship and offering comfort, empathy is understanding a persons pain or hardship because you have experienced something like it yourself.

And in reality, it is sympathy, rather than empathy, that goes without action.

We feel bad for the hungry and the homeless and the mentally ill and the vets with PTSD, and we acknowledge our sympathy and move on.

But empathy–when you know what it feels to be that person–makes it harder to walk away.

I will always be patient with someone living in our country who does not have a good command of the English language, because I, too, lived in a foreign land. I even had the luxury of expensive, company-funded language lessons, but after two years, I left without a very good grasp of the German language.

Recovering alcoholics know what it is to struggle with addiction and volunteer as sponsors to help others who struggle

Breast cancer survivors are fierce in their actions. Not only do they rally around women who are dealing with cancer, they mobilize in huge numbers to raise money to fund research to find a cure.

Empathy and action go together, don’t they? While there are times when we sympathize with someone or some situation and fail to take any action (sometimes there just isn’t any action to take), most of the time empathy spurs us to action. Knowing how someone feels, not only moves us to help, it better equips us to be able to help.

That is why there is a movement among religious people to move into communities that are impoverished and disadvantaged.  In a less dramatic, but similar model of Mother Teresa living amonst the lepers, people like Shane Calibourne and Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove are creating communities in the midst of the people they want to serve. They know that sympathy won’t be enough to transform people and places. There has to be empathy and understanding that comes with being a part of that community.

But we can also get in trouble when we take action without any sense of empathy or understanding.

All families have stories that they tell. Those stories that have been told so often that all anyone has to do to evoke them is simply to say one word or line from the story. In my family of origin one of those stories was about the Boy Scout helping the little old lady cross the street.  The Boy Scout spots an older lady standing on the corner with a sack full of groceries in her arms. He quickly takes the groceries out of her hands and begins to lead her safely across the street with one hand on her elbow and the other clutching the grocery bag.

The woman protests, “Young man, you don’t have to….”

“Oh, yes, I do,” interrupts the scout.

“No, really, it’s okay,” insists the lady.

“Ma’am, I wouldn’t be doing my duty as a scout if I didn’t help you cross the street.”

At this point, they reach the sidewalk and the woman has had enough. “I didn’t even want to cross the damn street!”

Or to borrow from the handbook of my childhood, Free to Be You and Me,

Some kind of help is the kind of help that helping’s all about


Some kind of help is the kind of help that we all can do without

When we act without empathy or understanding, at best we run the risk of making someone cross a road when they don’t even need to get to the other side. At worst, we do more harm than good in our efforts to help.

Empathy and Action go together like Peas and Carrots, Bert and Ernie and marathons and Motrin. In our efforts to live a more compassionate life, we want to be sure we are practicing both.

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