023 Empathy (front)What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Empathy is an act of imagination. It involves picturing ourselves in other people’s bodies, minds, and hearts so that we can understand and sympathize with them. Sympathy is an act of compassion. It involves supporting someone in a difficult time or situation.

Empathy can be learned and enhanced. Try to patiently hear people out. Listen to them empathically. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Feel how it feels to be them. Empathy helps you imaginatively feel others’ feelings and it is a core component to living a life of compassion.

As I return from a vacation in Washington, DC with my family where we visited all the historical sites, participated in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and listened to numerous excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream speech, I thought about how compassion has been a core value to help us through many difficult times in our country’s maturation. But how does one go about teaching such a critical value to our children. These thoughts brought me to this week’s Life Slice card – Empathy.

I recognize the words empathy and sympathy are often confused. While a person can exhibit one of these behaviors without the other, they are certainly related. Even more so, when they can be properly defined and exhibited, they actually strengthen one another and help us to become more compassionate individuals.

The first step is to fully imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes – feel their struggles, understand their perspective, see their passions, try to understand their history or circumstances, and feel their pain for that moment. You may not agree with everything they do or say, but if you imagine what it is like to be that person, you can begin to understand why and how their behaviors manifest the way they do. This is empathy – to feel how it feels to be that real person in front of you.

The next step is to reach out, to provide support or encouragement to those who are struggling. You may not be able to fix the situation completely, but each small act of compassion does make a difference. Ask yourself, what support can I provide to this individual to make their journey easier, to lessen their burden, to assist in a difficult situation? This is sympathy – to act and to provide support with compassion.

As I thought of examples to help us and our children live more compassionate lives, I immediately thought of a lesson provided to me by my eldest son.

As my family walked throughout Georgetown past posh boutiques and exceptional restaurants, we noticed there were many homeless people on these same streets. Most people look away, make believe they don’t exist, or avoid them completely. However, my son makes a habit of boxing up extra food from a restaurant, buying an extra meal, or purchasing a few items at the grocery store and giving it to the next homeless person he meets. He knows that he can’t change their entire situation, nor does he judge their character, but he takes a moment to stand in their shoes – to see them as real people. He then takes action to deal with what he can fix, rather than what he cannot. He addresses the individual, looks them in the eye, engages them, lets them know he cares, and he provides them with nutritious food or an extra sweater or a raincoat to help them survive.

These small gifts of compassion can be given to anyone, anywhere, and anytime throughout our day. It could be by helping a mom with her packages or watching her back as she tries to get her children and groceries loaded into the car. It could be walking a non-English speaking person to the correct address when you find them lost and confused on the street corner. Or it could be by volunteering once a week at a local shelter to read to children and help with schoolwork so that their parents can go to work and begin to make a new life for their family.

Life can be difficult. We all need help sometime. We all need to feel that we are seen as another human being – that someone cares. We can make a difference, but only when we pay attention and act compassionately by practicing the values of empathy and sympathy every day. And for those of you who need a little motivation to get started, recent research indicates that people who live compassionately and provide random acts of kindness, live healthier, happier and longer lives.

If you are interested in learning more about how to live a life of compassion and purpose, our Making a Difference Plan workbook is a great resource.


Empathy represents the Life Slice card featured this week. The deck of 52 beautiful cards can inspire you and your children to live a life of celebration and purpose. Or share them with a friend or loved one as a meaningful gift from your heart.

© 2013 Celebrations of Life Services Inc. 651.600.6412

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