Peace Be with You Podcast

Episode 33: Empathy Not Sympathy

Peace Be With You Podcast Episode 33 Empathy Not Sympathy

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In this episode, I want to point out a common trap that awaits peacemakers: Sympathy is often equated with empathy. When peacemakers fail to discern the difference between sympathy and empathy, they get into trouble.


“Angel Share” Kevin MacLeod  Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Episode Transcript

Episode 33: Empathy Not Sympathy

In this episode, I want to point out a common trap that awaits peacemakers: Sympathy is often equated with empathy. When peacemakers fail to discern the difference between sympathy and empathy, they get into trouble.

Sympathy resembles glue, fastening a peacemaker to a party’s False Self. Empathy works as a solvent, dissolving sticky connections. Sympathy sees through the eyes of the false self; empathy sees through the eyes of the divine self. Empathy frees us; sympathy traps us.

Peacemakers who put forth sympathy collapse into the suffering of the parties. They soon become entangled in the bondage that secures the parties to their false selves. Trapped, they feel the quicksand of sympathy pull them down, away from the light into darkness.

In contrast, empathy safely pervades suffering with unconditional love. Peacemakers with empathy view from a transcendent perspective: They view suffering “as it is.” Empathy bestows clarity whereas sympathy clouds vision. Empathy taps into the deeper truths and generates wisdom.

Sympathetic peacemakers become hopelessly trapped in False Self quicksand. In contrast, those who bring empathy to peacemaking engage parties without becoming mired down.

They retain their perspective. They view safely, without becoming trapped. Empathy nurtures spiritual vision that pierces worldly fog. Empathy supports the transformative work of extracting parties from their False Self.

Thus, peacemakers should avoid sympathy. They want to avoid collapsing into the false self of another where they can no longer view clearly. They want to pervade and know suffering “as it is” rather than identifying with it.

Skilled peacemakers pervade falsehood and darkness but they do not become tainted with untruths. Their empathy does not precipitate a fall into the shadow reality of the false self.

Instead, they pervade suffering with spiritual awareness as they help parties remove veils of falsehood. They help parties untie knots of bondage. Working with empathy, they expose the networks of False Selves tethered to one another.

However, if such peacemakers slip into sympathy, they are dragged into the dim shadows where visibility is low. Those who avoid sympathy and practice empathy make some important discoveries.

Empathy reveals all parties share in a quest to achieve freedom from suffering. Empathy allows that urge to resonate between the parties and grow stronger.

This recognition of the mutual dream of freedom separates empathy from sympathy. When parties experience empathy, they become aware their nemesis also seeks release from duress.

The following analogy may clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy:

Imagine you’re standing on the deck of a ship. You happen to spy a drowning man. With empathy you totally grasp the drowning man’s situation. You understand his plight. You observe his fear and panic, yet you remain clear-headed. You toss him a life jacket or a rescue line — exactly what he needs.

In contrast, if you are prone to responding with sympathy, you are inspired to jump overboard to save the drowning man. But once you hit the water, he clings to you. Panicked, he wraps his arms around you. You are hopelessly bound. You cannot save him or yourself. Together you sink beneath the waves.

I remember a class I took part in during high school. Pool safety. In the final exercise, the final test, I jumped in to save the mock victim. I was confident that I knew the proper moves to execute a rescue.

But then, cued by the instructor, the “victim” — actually an excellent swimmer from the school swim team — wrapped himself around me, simulating the crushing panic of a drowning man.

That was a horrible feeling — sinking to the bottom of the pool unable to help. The only option was to fight back and get free from his grasp.

Sympathy is just like that — a party’s desperate panic and fear ties you up and renders your assistance ineffective. So, unless you enjoy being dragged under and failing, stay away from sympathy.

There is a scriptural example of empathy in Christ’s “suffering with others.” Jesus’ suffering, his empathy for the plight of man, transforms the world. His empathy opens the gates of the abyss so man might find eternal life.

But when peacemakers ask parties to open their hearts to the wounds and cares of others, they usually are met with resistance. The party fears mediation will entail too much suffering. Even though the conflicts they face are not as profound as Jesus’ descent into the nether regions, they back away from “suffering with” others.

When they have to face the suffering of the other party — it may be suffering they themselves caused. The pain they once inflicted on another now causes them to suffer. This journey through the wreckage of past misdeeds is certainly not a holiday.

Initially, a party may be repulsed at the idea. They may ask: Why should my opponent’s suffering concern me? But concern and empathy are warranted. They aid reconciliation.

When a party empathizes with his enemy’s suffering, often that enemy is released from fear and hostility. Empathy is a form of love that dissolves unwanted conditions.

In reverse, when parties cannot empathize with their opponent’s suffering, their opponent’s fear remains locked in place. If empathy goes missing, there is no solvent that dissolves fear and hostility. Hope for reconciliation diminishes.

A subtle factor that encourages empathy is the shared awareness, on the part of all parties, that they mutually contributed to the conflict. Later in the process, they will become certain they helped create bondage.

They will learn that, in some measure, they have authored their own tribulation. Their mutual role in co-authoring conflict becomes clear through empathy.

Divine collaboration, introduced in an earlier episode, can be seen as the search for a path to mutual freedom. The search relies on mutual empathy. The dynamics of collaboration, infused with empathy, gives rise to a paradoxical axiom: We must free others to free ourselves.

It is different with sympathy. With sympathy we fail to free the other. And thus we fail to free ourselves.

When we “suffer with others” through empathy, we come to know their suffering in a transcendent manner. We view with spiritual eyes and see things as they truly are — we view supernatural truth, which allows us to free the other from bondage. And, thus, we attain freedom ourselves.

So, as you reflect on your peacemaking approach, be sure to discern the differences between sympathy and empathy. I hope this has helped you.

Good day. May God bless you and bring you peace.