In a recent meeting at work, we were talking about providing good customer service and at some point, the conversation revolved around defining the difference between sympathy and empathy. I have to say that sometimes the same words don’t always mean the same things to different people. Someone says “goulash” and you picture a tasty dish of cubed steak, macaroni noodles and vegetables in a hearty pasta sauce. You smile as you remember enjoying a nice warm bowl at grandma’s house. I hear the word goulash and it brings an entirely different picture to my mind. I picture myself as an 8 year old boy sitting in front of a bowl containing a mixture of too many onions, too little hamburger and big chunks of potatoes that are still raw in the middle. Same word, different thoughts and different pictures entirely.
It’s true. The same words might mean different things to different people. But let’s get back to sympathy and empathy. The dictionary defines sympathy as feeling sorry for someone’s situation or misfortune. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. The differences in definition are slight. But the differences in experience can be great. Although I still have some more studying to do on the issue, right now I would sum up the difference like this, sympathy says, “I am hurting for you.” Empathy says, “I am hurting with you.” Sympathy laments the fact that someone is cold. Empathy lends them our ear and lends them our coat. Sympathy shares our pity. Empathy shares our presence.
I am reminded of what Paul said in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” When we share our presence, it helps someone to know that they are not alone in their struggle. It helps someone to know that they have not been forgotten. It helps someone to hold up and hold out a little longer because someone is there with them. And while we may not be able to verbalize the difference between sympathy and empathy, we certainly know it when someone is present with us, helping us bear our burdens. I pray you will have a wonderfully blessed week. I pray that you will know that you are not alone. And I pray that every bowl of goulash you eat warms your heart, fills your soul and brings a smile to your face.