The Human Heart Longs for Sympathy in Suffering
Recently a friend called me in tears. She had been mistreated and wanted to share the agony she went through. It is at moments like this that the heart longs for a caring ear to pay heed to the distress of the soul.
As I listened to her tale, I was increasingly distressed along with her. How could such a thing happen? To rail against the injustice would give her support in her claim. To be outraged with her would intensify the hurt she was expressing. What would be a good balance? The best decision I could make at the moment would be to be a good listener, actively participating in the moment.
Later I reflected on how I felt this way at times, wanting to share my pain with someone and finding no one available. When that happens, it feels as if the world has abandoned you in your time of need.
But what is the result we want when we share our suffering with others? Sympathy? Empathy? What is the distinction between the two, and how do we use this knowledge to be good friends and neighbors?
A succinct description of sympathy and empathy in the journal of Palliative Medicine identifies and clarifies the matter straight from the patients themselves. Their research investigated palliative Cancer patients to determine how they wished to be viewed when no cure was available for their terminal illnesses. The result? "Sympathy was described as an unwanted, pity-based response to a distressing situation, characterized by a lack of understanding and self-preservation of the observer. Empathy was experienced as an affective response that acknowledges and attempts to understand individual's suffering through emotional resonance." [i]
According to the Stanford University School of Medicine, emotional resonance is akin to the expression "I feel your pain." They further theorize there are two types of resonance "identical resonance – realizing that someone else is in pain and then actually feeling the pain yourself and reactive resonance – when you sympathize with someone else's pain and feel inclined to help." [ii]
To find an echoing response in humankind, I asked, "What would Jesus do?" And, "Did Christ experience such a longing? The Bible clearly states that He shared the sorrows we do. In fact, in Isaiah 53, He is referred to as the Suffering Servant.
Could it be that He, too, longed to have others be with Him in His suffering? The passage that comes to mind was the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when He asked His friends to watch with Him as He went through the night of agony before the experience of the cross (Matthew 26:36-44, Mark 14:32-41, and Luke 22:39-46).
The Garden of Gethsemane
Consider the following passage from the pen of inspiration: "The human heart longs for sympathy in suffering. This longing Christ felt to the very depths of His being. In the supreme agony of His soul, He came to His disciples with a yearning desire to hear some words of comfort from those whom He had so often blessed and comforted, and shielded in sorrow and distress. The One who had always had words of sympathy for them was now suffering superhuman agony, and He longed to know that they were praying for Him and for themselves. How dark seemed the malignity of sin! Terrible was the temptation to let the human race bear the consequences of its own guilt, while He stood innocent before God. If He could only know that His disciples understood and appreciated this, He would be strengthened." [iii]
Often, we are tempted to think that we are the only ones to experience much pain from disappointments, abandonment, and from uncaring friends, or whatever may be the case. But then, as I sat and pondered the lives of those around me, I began to realize that I couldn't be the only one.
Nothing in life remains constant. All is ever-changing. The reality of a moment ago is not so now because that moment has passed. We live, or rather, should live for today—this moment. The Bible states, "Take no thought for tomorrow, because it has its own set of problems." (Matthew 6:34). If we lived in this manner, we would not delay listening to and sympathizing with each other.
How can we actively listen and cultivate sympathy or empathy?
Buck the social norms that state, "You do you, and I do Me." Care for each other look to family, friends, and community again to be a part of the caring circle that supports each other.
Take a walk in the other person's shoes (metaphorically). Consider that they are you and how you would feel if this happened to you. We are so tempted to do the eye roll and declare, "get over yourself already!" But, STOP, and consider what is it was me?
We can get to know the other person better. How well did the disciples know Christ when he asked them to pray with Him?
Take care of yourself. Reducing stress in your own life helps you to serve others better. I'm starting to feel the pressure of being confined to my living space, and I'm completing this article from a public library. Take a walk, eat nutritious food, get enough sunlight and nurture yourself.
Put others on your schedule. Yes, your family and friends may come first but do not neglect to be a source of comfort to others who call you friend.
Consider setting aside specific time to check in on others and give yourself time to listen. Answering the phone or calling others to say "I can't talk now" is not helpful. Remember basic ethical norms.
Choose to move from a pitying perspective to one of caring and wanting to help. If your words and actions aren't helping, they may be hurting.
A burden shared is a burden lighter. Sometimes all that is needed is a listening ear. When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened. Not just waiting for an opportunity to give your "two cents" nor to multi-task by completing some work in the meanwhile.
Being there for someone takes commitment and genuine love—a caring heart. So, the next time a friend talks—listen.
[i] Sinclair, Shane et al. “Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients' understandings, experiences, and preferences.” Palliative medicine vol. 31,5 (2017): 437-447. doi:10.1177/0269216316663499 [ii] http://ccare.stanford.edu/research/wiki/compassion-definitions/emotion-resonance/ [iii] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages page 687 paragraph 3