I remember being shocked by the fact that Mrs. B., my third grade teacher, was crying. It must have been April 30, 1975, because that’s the day the Vietnam War ended. She was crying because she was happy, not sad, she told us. But I could tell it was a different kind of happy than I had ever experienced. Looking back, I understand now that Mrs. B.’s happiness included relief, exhaustion, sadness and (likely) anger that had been pent up in the name of being courageous.
“Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone who is having a bad experience that you’ve never had; empathy is when you can relate to the person’s experience because you’ve had it yourself,” I remember rehearsing in preparation for an English quiz. But as I grew older, I realized that this way of making the distinction makes it too easy for us to excuse ourselves from participating in the suffering of those whose experiences are alien to us. Brené Brown explains that empathy is intentionally “feeling with people,” while sympathy licenses distancing from them. When someone falls down in a hole, she illustrates, those who are empathetic find a way to lower themselves down and be with them, saying, “You are not alone.” Those who are merely sympathetic stand at the top and yell, “Wanna sandwich?” “Empathy is … a vulnerable choice,” she adds, “because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” And who wants to do that?
As I write this, the front page of today’s New York Times reads, “America’s Longest War Ends as Troops Leave Afghanistan.” There is also a video showing the bodies of 13 service members who died in the August 26 Kabul bombing returning home. How can I – as a civilian – be with these men and women who are coming home, or those who have lost a loved one to war? I do not know what it’s like to be trained to kill, to watch my comrades die and wonder why I was spared or to leave people who trusted me to suffer the Taliban’s tyranny. I would be doing well, it seems to me, to send down a sandwich or offer a donation to fund PTSD therapy. Yet our Christian faith does not allow us to distance ourselves from suffering people by way of acting sympathetically. Paul instructs us, rather, to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). The Word became flesh not only to do something for us, but to be with us so we can be with one another.
“Being with” doesn’t require pretending we’ve all had the same experiences. It does, however, insist we continue listening to and working to find where we connect to the stories of others even after we’ve recognized that we can’t imagine what that must be like. When we allow the Spirit to expand our imaginations as we listen, learn and reflect, we find we belong to one another in ways that will sometimes break us, but will also make us whole.
Cynthia L. Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.