It is human nature. It is something that is ingrained into who we are as human beings. As we listen to people, walk with them through life, we desire, in the deepest part of who we are, to have them know we understand what they are going through.
My mother-in-law has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. As we have lived in this new reality people want to show their love, concerned and want updates. People truly care for me, my wife, her stepmom, and the rest of our family. They want to know we are all loved and cared for. I get it. It is a part of what we are called to do as Christians too but in all of the conversations I have noticed something and I am the first to admit it, I do it too.
This is part of our human nature we are all preprogrammed to do. We attempt to relate. We hear people’s stories of pain and we want to let them know we understand what they are going through. “I had a brother who had pancreatic cancer.” “My Aunt lived with that cancer for four years.” “I had cancer too and after surgery, I was just fine.” As we try to relate to the person talking to us maybe a better word for what we are doing is we are extending sympathy.
Here is where I find myself guilty. Say a person comes to me and simply wants to share their journey with their spouse who has Alzheimer’s. As I listen, I automatically, and without much thought, inform them I understand what they are going through because my Grandfather had this horrible disease. I might even regale them with stories of him during his journey. I have come to understand my personal reasons for doing this. I want to show them I understand what they are going through, but what I am learning is, in this new chapter of my life with a loved one with cancer, it really doesn’t help.
It doesn’t help, in the Alzheimer’s scenario, because I am making my experience with my grandfather having this disease equal to this person’s spouse having the disease. The truth is I wasn’t the main caregiver for my grandfather. I wasn’t married to the person with the disease. Grandparents and grandchildren don’t share life the same as a married couple does. So not only are our experiences different but the pain, suffering, and struggles are different. I make the connection through to make myself feel like I understand and that is where the problem lies.
Sympathy is not the same as empathy. As a pastor, I truly want to show the person I am talking to that I care for them. I want to know this relationship is a safe place to vent, cry, and be real. I want to offer as much pastoral care as I can. In my past I have offered a lot of sympathies when I was attempting, poorly, to offer empathy. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
When I jump to make the link to my grandfather had the same disease, what I am really doing is keeping that person’s pain at a distance. I take their pain and make it something I have already dealt with or worked through. I end up keeping it at arm’s reach and what I am doing is giving them sympathy. As Brené Brown says, “Empathy is the fuel for connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
Disconnection is the best way to describe it. As I watch people have conversations with my wife and ask about her stepmom, I can see them switch to focus on their stories, how they can relate, and I can see the disconnection happen in real time. I have walked away from a conversation when someone asked about a death in my family and sarcastically thought to myself, “Well, I’m glad I had time for you to share and relive the time you had to bury your three cats in three months. That really makes me feel better about losing my last grandparent.”
When we want to be there for people. When we truly and deep down want them to know we care and love them, stop trying to relate to their situation. Stop pulling in personal connections of when this happened to you. Stop pulling the focus away from the person you are trying to connect with because you aren’t connecting. Instead, you are disconnecting.
Brené Brown has a wonderful piece from her TED Talk that was made into this short animated video and it is below. It is well worth 6 minutes of your life. I say 6 minutes because it is 3 minutes long and you should watch it at least twice to understand the power and truth in this video.
May we learn to offer more sympathy but just being quiet and listening. Not offering answers or ways to fix life. Just simply listening to someone else’s pain and struggles and simply saying (even without words) “I hear you.”