“There is no greater loan than a sympathetic ear” (Frank Tyger).

IF “EMPATHY” MEANS UNDERSTANDING SOMEONE ELSE, THEN “SYMPATHY” MEANS FEELING WHAT THEY FEEL. It is “a fellow-feeling” (Robert Burton). Or in the words of Charles H. Parkhurst’s familiar definition: “Sympathy is two hearts tugging at one load.” To sympathize is to open our hearts to another person’s feelings. And mark it well: sympathy is not limited to times of grief or emotional pain. “Anyone can sympathize with another’s sorrow, but to sympathize with another’s joy is the attribute of an angel” (Arthur Schopenhauer).

Hardly anything is more beautiful or valuable than sympathy. Emerson was right when he said, “Sympathy is a supporting atmosphere, and in it we unfold easily and well.” And if we appreciate the freedom that comes from being surrounded by sympathetic people, shouldn’t we give that gift more often to those who need our support?

At least two cautions are in order. (1) None of us can ever feel exactly what another person is feeling, and we ought not to pretend that we do. The best that we can do is feel what they’re feeling as nearly as possible. (2) We ought not to be condescending when we sympathize. Especially when someone else has suffered a loss that we think we’ve protected ourselves against, it’s hard not to feel (secretly) a little superior to the person whom we pity, as if they “had it coming.” But we ought to guard against that kind of counterfeit sympathy.

True sympathy costs more than many of us realize. It often requires more time and effort than can be conveniently given. Indeed, it requires more than the giving of anything that we might “have” or “possess.” We can’t sympathize by skimming off a little of our excess emotion or affluence, giving that which we can easily afford to give — without any sacrifice. No, sympathy means that we invest a significant portion of ourselves in someone else’s situation, whether that situation involves grief or gladness. It says, “Whatever you’re feeling, I’m willing to feel your feelings with you. And more than that, I’m willing to put my heart at your service. I will do whatever will encourage you.” 

“Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul” (Martin Luther King Jr.).

Gary Henry — WordPoints.com + AreYouaChristian.com

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