There is a difference between having empathy for someone and having pity for them. Having empathy for someone is having the ability to relate to where they are. It is understanding, on some level, the pain they are going through - and being vulnerable enough to get involved with them as they suffer, and maybe even help them find a way through. Having pity for someone involves feeling sorry for them.
It is far more helpful to people when our efforts to help come from empathy rather than pity. When my sister died suddenly, several years ago, I felt like the bottom fell out of my world. I was in such intense pain sometimes I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. How was it possible I would never see her again? Talk to her? Laugh with her? I had never experienced such a profound loss - and I had never suffered so deeply. A few days after I learned of my sister’s death, a woman at church stopped me in the fellowship hall and asked for the details, and how I was doing. I told her what had happened and was searching for words to convey how I was doing when she said, “Oh well, she lived in California and you live in Michigan so you can’t possibly miss her that much.”
I was stunned into silence at her seemingly callous dismissal of my pain. I literally could not open my mouth to say a single word. She went on her way, ignorant of the fact it felt like she had driven a stake into my heart. She clearly had never experienced a significant loss in her life - or if she had she had not allowed it to develop an empathetic spirit. She pitied me for losing a sister, but could not empathize with my pain.
Pity is not helpful. For years I have worked with individuals who have a variety of disabilities. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn early in this job path was my pity would do them no good. When I start to feel sorry for someone - I try to do too much to make up for his or her misfortune. I end up in a position of superiority over them, and there is a subconscious drive to keep doing more and more for them. Pity works more for my benefit because it makes me feel better without really helping those I want to help. It fosters a sense of dependence on me and robs them of their independence and ability to help themselves.
Empathy is different. I think empathy is far more effective when I have gone through the same, or similar, experiences as the people I wish to help. Here in the United States we strive to be independent and strong all the time. Social media causes some people to whine and cry about everything bad that happens in their lives. They post every struggle and frustration on Facebook and often magnify them by a hundred. Most people, however, are annoyed by such antics and would never use social media to try to reap sympathy in that way. We are supposed to be strong. We are supposed to be able to successfully and privately withstand anything. That is compounded when you travel in “Christian” circles, unfortunately. Often, somehow, it is assumed you exhibit a lack of faith when you openly hurt or need help.
I try to be very open about the suffering I have experienced. I don’t think social media is the place to air it - because for the most part, I am a positive person and really believe God will work all things for good in the end. I do believe, however, I have suffered and struggled for good reason. I know how it feels to suffer the death of someone I dearly loved. I comprehend the hell living through a year of divorce brings. I understand the hollow, empty feeling of homelessness and the loss of a feeling of belonging anywhere. I have experienced the snub of people who purport they are there to help, but in reality have become judge and jury. I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to church rejection, and I comprehend how easy it would be to just walk away and give up on God based on the hurt of that rejection. I know what it is to live in life-strangling debt, and to be unable to see a way out, ever. I have lived through knowing I am down to my last $20.00 and having to decide the most important way to spend it - gas or food? I have been forced to hold my head up in spite of vicious rumors and painful lies spread about me. I get how it hurts to lose friends over things like that, and the mortification of confrontation that often precedes the loss. And I have learned to be the strength my child needed when all I wanted to do was disappear somewhere and cry for the rest of my life. I have looked into the eyes of someone who pities me, who puts him or herself above me whether meaning to or not. I have swallowed my pride and accepted help from them, overcoming feelings of humiliation and embarrassment. I know how it feels.
I have learned how much better it is to treat others with dignity and respect, no matter how different they are - or the paths their lives have taken. I have learned not to pity, but to do everything in my power to empathize and set aside judgment - even when they are where they are through their own fault. I have learned to have empathy with people as they face very dark times, and I am learning to love without putting conditions on that love. My heart is softer and more vulnerable than it has ever been. I finally believe I have become a person who can truly be a source of help to others, and The Torch is a reflection of that. It is why I am here. It is why life has been the way it has been. I am at peace with my life and excited to see what happens next.