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Hope for the Day

Sympathy, Empathy or Compassion

Diane Houghtaling, Hope Ministries, Columnist
Posted 6/25/21

As third-grader Billy sits at his desk watching the clock, all he can think about is that he still has five minutes to get through before the end of the period. His mind is consumed with one thought …

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Hope for the Day

Sympathy, Empathy or Compassion

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As third-grader Billy sits at his desk watching the clock, all he can think about is that he still has five minutes to get through before the end of the period. His mind is consumed with one thought – he needs to go to the bathroom, really bad. But suddenly the agony gives way to something that’s never happened before, and he feels the wetness spreading on his pants.

Billy is horrified when he realizes what just happened, and feels like his heart will stop. He breathes a desperation prayer, “Dear God, this is an emergency! I need help now!” He knows that when the other students see what happened, he will be the laughingstock of the classroom and will never live this down. He will carry this stigma the rest of his life.

He opens his eyes just as he feels a rush of cold water pouring into his lap, and gives a yelp. At the precise moment he finished his prayer, Kathy was walking past his desk with a full watering can to go water the plants in the classroom. She tripped at his desk, and the water came flowing over him.

As Billy breathes a silent thank you to God, the class jumps into action. The teacher rushes over to take him to the locker room to get his gym clothes, while the other students mop up the mess with a roll of paper towels. Now the humiliation and ridicule that should have been his is being poured out upon Kathy, as the others call her a clumsy klutz.

After school while waiting for the bus, Billy finds Kathy and whispers, “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” She whispers back, “I wet my pants once too.”

This is a beautiful example of sympathy, empathy and compassion in action. These three words are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference in them. Sympathy is understanding what a person is feeling and why, and expresses itself in pity or feeling sorry for the person. When Kathy saw the horrified look on Billy’s face, she knew something had happened and this alerted her sympathy.

Empathy is when you feel what another is feeling and actually experience their suffering. It’s putting yourself in another’s shoes. Whether you have experienced firsthand what they are going through or can only imagine, you feel their pain. In this case Kathy had once experienced the humiliation and pain that Billy was going through, and felt it more keenly than others would.

Compassion takes sympathy and empathy a step further. You have recognized and felt another’s pain, but compassion is a willingness to do what you can to relieve their pain. It means “to suffer with.” When compassion takes over, you don’t run from another’s suffering or pretend it doesn’t exist, but you are present with them to help alleviate it.

Just as Kathy had compassion on Billy and made the decision to take upon herself the humiliation and ridicule that rightly belonged to him, so God has made a way of escape for us. As Jesus hung on that cross, His body broken and bleeding for us, He took upon Himself all the pain, suffering and sorrow that living in a sin-filled world would cause us.

Because of Jesus’ compassion to willingly die for us, we can have forgiveness of sin, healing for our suffering and sorrows, and restored relationship with Him.

Hope Ministries is a Christian counseling center, and we are here to help. If you would like to speak confidentially with someone, give us a call at 482-5300.

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