Compassion is the universal language of humanity. No matter what words you speak, acts of kindness and empathy resonate soul-deep. The more we each speak this language of compassion in thought, word and action, the more we’ll understand each other. The more we understand each other the more we can imbue our lives with peace.
Take Action: Today find a way to speak the language of compassion by reaching out to another person (family member, friend or stranger) and asking “What can I do to support you today?” And then if you’re able, do that thing.
1. Listen carefully. Be mindful of a (natural) tendency to suggest solutions to “fix” the problem. Also be aware of your own internal dialogue, try to separate any fear or anxiety you’re feeling from your response. Those feelings are important to acknowledge and process, and maybe even articulate, but it’s best if your responses aren’t unknowingly slathered in your own discomfort.
2. Don’t pity. Although there are those of us who feel the need to solicit pity, most of us want to be understood and offered empathy. It’s really hard to dig deep and find ways to relate and extend our own understanding (of the individual and the situation) if we’re busy feeling sorry for the person we’re talking with.
3. Be still. So often, in our efforts to sidle up next to someone and extend compassion or share our love, we desperately desire to DO SOMETHING. Sometimes actions are called for and very appropriate. Sometimes though, our dear ones just need us to be present and sit in the uncomfortable places they’re in without questioning how or when they’ll move out of them.
Bearing the burdens of mortality, alone or alongside someone dear to us, is hard work and the effort entails a lot of endurance but with some practice and patience, we can see a grace-full increase in our abilities to meaningfully care for those we love.
In our quest to experience and offer charity, I believe that the differences between sympathy and empathy are important distinctions to make. In one of her books, wise teacher named Brene Brown points out that sympathy, while well-meaning, is usually divisive, it draws a firm line between my experiences and your experiences. If you offer me sympathy you might say “Whoa, I’m glad I’ve never had to go through that, it sounds awful.” Or maybe “Wow, do you think there’s anything you could’ve done to prevent this?” or “What have you done to try to fix it?” or “Have you ever considered that this is just part of God’s plan for you and He knows best?” Sympathy illustrates that it’s me over here and you over there, and you’re uncomfortable with the place I’m at right now.
As we develop our ability to offer empathy, we realize that although our experiences may not be exactly the same our humanity is. Empathy realizes that my deepest sadness probably feels a lot like your deepest sadness and despite our differences, we are bound to each other by similar emotions. As we experience hardship, loss or grief for ourselves (or seek to learn from the experiences of others), we begin to see the difference between feeling bad for someone and feeling bad with someone. It takes practice, sensitivity, patience and maybe a few well-placed questions (but often just a closed mouth), to sit in heartache or ride grief right alongside a friend without trying to resolve it.
Here is an example: Those who become intimately acquainted with grief know she’s a guest who routinely overstays her welcome. She demands attention at inopportune times and she’s agitated when you put her off. An empathetic friend is ok with that. If needed, an empathetic friend will come to you, knowing she needs to allow extra space in her visit to accommodate grief. She will expect grief to waltz in unannounced and stay as long as she pleases. On the other hand, a sympathetic friend who is still learning empathy, may, in her need to act, rush over and try to usher grief out the door. She may dole out unsolicited advice on how to shorten grief’s visit while asking her to go take a walk or she may think it best to remind you that grief’s visit will eventually end. Those who know grief know that once she’s made her appearance, she rarely ever leaves your side, but she does eventually quiet down and settle into the flow of your life. She will still make surprising outbursts but you will be more familiar with her by then and have ideas on how to acknowledge her without giving yourself over to her. An empathetic friend will know this and will remain accessible as you come to this knowledge yourself. A sympathetic friend may not but it’s not because she doesn’t want to offer compassion in the way you need it, it’s just because she and grief haven’t gotten to know each other so there’s still some awkwardness between them. You hope the two won’t meet anytime soon, but if they do, you will doubtless be there to sit with her and as she learns you won’t feel self-righteous. You’ll just feel sad.
Is there any question which the Savior offers us?