I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a wordsmith. Rather, I’m interested in investigating concepts and ideas. Sometimes those ideas are inspiring and uplifting. Other times they’re painful and complicated. So recently, after Hurricane Harvey, and then Irma, and now the mass execution in Las Vegas, I found myself looking for answers and understanding in the dictionary. I looked up three words: sympathy, empathy, and compassion. The definitions were the start to a weeklong pursuit of trying to understand how we feel about and react to tragedy, and what it means to our own health and wellness. As I researched, those three words made me feel like a ball in a pinball machine, jumping around, trying to find the right place to land. With each piece of understanding came another question and then another perspective. I haven’t quite found my landing place, but here is the beginning of my understanding of some complex and layered ideas.
Let’s start with my research, the definitions.
Sympathy is feeling care or concern for someone, often someone close to you. A personal connection is there. Empathy is the ability to imagine someone’s situation and intuit how they are feeling. You are able to “walk in their shoes” because you share perspective and ultimately, when feeling empathy, share feelings. To distinguish between sympathy and empathy, I remind myself that I can sympathize with my dog Viva (we have a personal connection), but, strictly speaking, I cannot empathize with her because we do not have a shared perspective on how we experience life. That information, those definitions, are digestible. But then compassion came into the mix, and it got complicated.
According to the dictionary, compassion is feelings of sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. But further research revealed it is more complicated than that. Buddhism believes compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind to work toward. And, after many long conversations with YL Soul Expert Courtney Bauer, we came to the realization that, perhaps, there are key factors to realizing compassion. Good intentions, self awareness, presence, and empathy are all a part of this equation. And when all of these factors are in sync, compassion, in and of itself, has the power to elicit profound change.
After studying and researching and defining all these words, I paused to assess where it left me. I know my process. I research to try to understand and connect deeper. But connecting deeper doesn’t always get me the answers. In this case, when I asked myself, “Am I experiencing sympathy, empathy, or compassion toward the people who have survived the unthinkable tragedies of the past few weeks?” I realized that perhaps, how I define my feelings as an outside observer doesn’t matter.
Trying to make sense of the tragedies is not possible. Trying to understand how our leader has responded isn’t possible either. But action is possible. What we do as individuals is very much within our control. I am reminded of a passage from one of my grandfather’s sermons. He wrote in September 1945, “Against all the persecutions, cruelties and murderous examples of the outer world, we strive to make the deeds of our hands live up to the words of our mouths.” And with that, I found the words I needed. I’ll take my grandfather’s challenge, and redirect my research to finding a way to help.
My challenge to you is this: Take something in the world or in your community that resonates with you. Consider it thoughtfully; how does it make you feel? Go through your own process: research, listen, read, look up the buzzwords that strike you. And then, do something. Take action in your own way. You will find comfort in knowing you can take control of some small portion of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. But something even better will also occur. Your sympathy, your empathy, and/or your compassion will grow legs, as you transform these concepts into a real, tangible, and positive change for another.
Make A Change Today,