Sympathy means feeling sorry for someone, feeling pity for their circumstance, enough to send them a condolence card and some flowers. If someone’s house burns down, you feel sympathy for the person and their family and this may move you to let them stay in your house until they can get back on their feet. I felt sympathy for the flood victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria last year, in Houston, Texas, the northeastern Caribbean, and Puerto Rico; this led me to donate to the Red Cross.
Empathy is a whole other concept. It is the ability to understand what someone is experiencing; knowing what their thoughts and emotions are like, from one’s own walk or experience. I have empathy for someone who just lost their father because I recently lost mine. I share their experience. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I empathize.
Psychology Today offers this succinct definition:
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own. You try to imagine yourself in their place in order to understand what they are feeling or experiencing. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy)
Empathy doesn’t just mean “putting yourself in another person’s shoes.” Empathy is knowing what another person has been through by getting intimate and walking through their horrors or joys with them:
Sit down; have a cup of tea; look through my pictures; meet my family; feel the vibes in my house, in my neighborhood, among my people. Come back tomorrow for more, because it takes time to understand why we are the way we are.
I have grown to empathize with the people who survived the Holocaust in Europe and the genocide in Rwanda. Remembering and memorializing the intimate details of those atrocities, immortalized through museums and film and stories that last through generations, is what builds empathy (apart from personal experience). Empathy leads us to remember the pain and to search our hearts for peace, shalom (Jews), amahoro (Rwandans).
In my quest to fully understand the origins of the pain that has been passed down to me (and my children) because of my race, I am compelled to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Blacks terrorized by violence, by lynching, by the humiliation of racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color today who are burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence (https://eji.org/national-lynching-memorial).
As a nation, we are only as strong as our weakest link. We must move on from sympathy and end the silence and the sugar-coating and misunderstanding surrounding these injustices in order to heal and be whole. The struggles of Black Americans were embellished in recent history with pervasive lynching and demoralizing racist White supremacy culture. And, even more recently, the struggle screamed at us when two Black men were arrested and detained by police for simply waiting for a friend (without making a purchase) in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is set on six acres in Montgomery, Alabama. It uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. It is a tool to help ALL citizens move past sympathy and develop empathy enough to be able to join the Jews and the Rwandans in saying, emphatically, “Never again!”
It’s worth our time and effort to visit soon.
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