Sympathy and Empathy

When I was younger, I always thought empathy and sympathy were interchangeable, that this was yet another moronic quirk of the English language. But then I was introduced to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey, in Funny Face and along with Fred Astaire, taught me the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Audrey: Do you know
what the word "empathy" means?

Fred: No, I'll have to have
the beginner's course on that one.

Is it something like sympathy?

Audrey: Oh, it goes beyond sympathy.
is to understand what someone feels.
is to project your imagination
so that you actually feel
what the other person is feeling.
You put yourself
in the other person's place.

Do I make myself clear?

The lesson made for a cute exchange between Hepburn and Astaire, and it also left a lasting impression on me. I’d go on to know the difference between empathy and sympathy, but I still felt clueless. I still felt as if they were similar.

Then I was studying for my Neurobiology exam at 2:00 AM on 03/11/11. I checked my Twitter (because I really didn’t want to study) and saw that the NYTimes tweeted: NYT NEWS ALERT: Tsunami Hits Japan After 8.8 Magnitude Earthquake Off Coast (Link). At first I shrugged it off, but then I was like, “Dude, you idiot. How do you shrug off an earthquake and tsunami?” I checked the Twitter feed again for a link to more information because the tweet I read was just an alert; no one had written a story yet.

Then I spent the next 30 minutes, and intermittent minutes after that, watching reports and reading articles. Tumblr, as if on cue, erupted with support. ((I never know how to feel about social activism on Tumblr.)) A few Facebook statuses turned into emotional and moral refuges for Japan and her people. I went to bed shaken, but not because of my Neurobiology exam in 7 hours.

Then I was on spring break. I moped and dragged myself around campus because I was lazy. I read more about Japan, and I watched more about Japan. Then I checked Tumblr and read this story:

So I just had a phone call with a friend of mine who’s living in Japan. She’s living in Sendai and as you may know that’s the city that got hot [sic] the worst. Well, she’s okay and her family too so far, but she was close to tears when she called me and after she told me what happened… I’m crying too.

She said that she’s been in the middle of the street after the earthquake and when the tsunami came, together with her mother and her little brother (2 years old). The water was too fast so they had to hide in the shelter of a house but they knew that the water would rise more and more and that they had to get away from there or else they would drown. They kept yelling and somehow a man saw them from a balcony of the house they were hiding behind. Well, that man jumped down from the balcony and into the water and helped my friend and her mother and brother to get up into the house and the safety even though the water was getting stronger and stronger and making it even more impossible to stand. My friend’s mother insisted on her kids going first and then the man helped her up the balcony too.

She just turned around and he grabbed her hand to get out of the water too when a car (one of hundreds) was being washed down the street and in his direction. My friend’s mother and the other people were yelling… and he suddenly let go of her hand so that she wouldn’t get pulled into the water when the car hit and drowned him.

My friend and her family survived… thanks to a stranger who gave his life to rescue them. He could’ve stayed in the save [sic] building but instead he helped them. I was so touched when she told me her story.

I don’t know the name of this man, his story, who he was… but I want to give him a special moment in my prayers today and in the future.

He’s a true hero.

I’ll tell you something. I find myself closer to tears these days. These tears are because of empathy, not sympathy. I had sympathy for the Haitians, but I have empathy for the Japanese. I have sympathy for the homeless in Milwaukee, but I have empathy for the sex slaves in Thailand. Do you see the difference? Finally, I do.

Note: The story is very dear to me. It’s very similar to something I heard at Urbana 09 (see my blog concerning Urbana 09). Thousands of missionaries in China with no record or history to their name, only the acknowledgment of their passing. The Nameless People. Live to be forgotten. They make Christ visible, not themselves. I hope I can live to be like the man in the story and like the Nameless missionaries in China.

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” – Albert Pine.

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