I’ve recently had what I might consider an epiphany about what I think is an eternal principle: the difference between sympathy and compassion.
It wasn’t that long ago that I would have told you there was no difference. They were different words to describe the same human feeling. To that, now, I proclaim “FALSE!” (That’s a Paxism – and an annoying one, at that! If you make a statement to Pax and he disagrees with your statement, instead of calmly saying, “See, I think you might be mistaken there,” he loudly proclaims, “FALSE!” So, I might say, “Pax, you can’t get on your iPad – your homework isn’t finished.” He will pop up and point dramatically at me. “FALSE!” I am working on a comeback that has to do with the back of my hand. But I digress.)
Anybody can feel sympathy. I think most girls experience it early in life. They see another girl trip and spill her lunch tray, for example, and they feel sympathy for her. Being around lots and lots of teenage boys lately, I’ve realized that most boys don’t experience a lot of sympathy until later in life – it’s something that comes with early maturity – maybe about the time they start getting ready to go on missions. But other than the rare sociopath or true narcissist, all of us develop feelings of sympathy eventually. And it’s an important quality. It’s one of the characteristics that makes us human. Let’s face it – the world can be a cruel place. You can’t watch a single newscast without feeling pangs of sympathy for people who lose their houses to fire, lose loved ones to accidents, suffer catastrophes, and so on.
So, for purposes of comparison, I’ll define sympathy, in my own words. Sympathy can be summarized with a phrase: “I feel sorry for…” There is nothing wrong with sympathy. I’m a fan of sympathy – I really am. But sympathy is not compassion.
I think compassion is a true, Christ-like attribute. Compassion is a cousin to charity, or “the true love of Christ.” For more reasons than I could explain here, my favorite chapter in all of the scriptures is 1 Corinthians 13 (the charity chapter). You could take almost the whole chapter, substitute the word “compassion” for the word “charity,” and it would mostly work. Compassion is a precious attribute; because I don’t think there is any way to know compassion without having experienced the difficult parts of life. You could say that in our lives, every tear we shed; every drop of blood we bleed; and every ounce of sweat we exude – all of it is traded for a priceless reservoir of compassion.
Back to definitions – if sympathy can be summarized with “I feel sorry for,” then compassion has a defining phrase, as well. For me, it is, “There but for the grace of God, go I!”
The first time I remember noticing the distinction between sympathy and compassion happened several years ago. My Elders Quorum was called one weekend to help a family in the ward move out of their house. Now, over the years, I’ve been involved with more Elders Quorum-assisted moves than I can count. You can tell, as soon as you arrive, how smooth and easy the move is going to go. Ideally, everything is neatly put in boxes and waiting for you. Your job is simply to move the boxes from the house to the moving truck. On this occasion, things were – well, they were messier than that. When I arrived early on Saturday morning, I was greeted by ten kind, decent women from the relief society. They were frantically packing household items into boxes, trying to get enough ready to be able to keep the arriving Elders busy. But despite their efforts, nothing was actually ready to be moved. We started grabbing furniture, wherever we could – oftentimes moving dressers with full drawers. We had to be careful, because nothing – even valuable furniture and antiques – was really prepared to be shoved into trucks. It looked as if the family had decided that morning, almost on a whim, to start the process. And it was honestly a little frustrating. On several occasions throughout the day, there was grumbling and rolled eyes from those of us giving up what we thought was going to be a few hours on our Saturday morning.
But as the day went on, I started to learn of the back story behind this family’s situation. I learned that the home was in foreclosure; and the family was moving into a small condominium owned by some relatives. The father in the home was a real estate agent. He had three property sales scheduled to close earlier that week; and any of the three would have allowed him to pay funds to the bank sufficient to avoid foreclosure. All three closings had fallen through. The Saturday we were there was two days before they absolutely had to be out of the home. They hadn’t started packing because they hadn’t imagined a scenario where they would really have to move.
To make matters worse, the father in this situation was in poor health. He couldn’t do much to help move anything even remotely heavy. How sad and helpless he must have felt! With his story in my mind, I approached the day’s task with a new perspective. A few years prior, I had what had been a successful business fail. It had been devastating to me – both personally and financially. While we struggled to get our financial house back in order, I had a recurring nightmare. In the quiet stretches of the dead of night – those contemplative hours where an insomniac’s molehills become mountains – I pictured, over and over again, having to tell my young son that he was losing the security of his childhood home, and moving to a place where he had to make all new friends. How could I possibly do that? How could I live with knowing how much it was going to hurt him? I am ashamed now to admit that there were times I would have gladly ended my own life, if I knew it would spare him of that hurt. On this Saturday, as I helped carry all the worldly possessions of this man, his wife, and his two young sons, it occurred to me. Hadn’t my recurring nightmare during those dark times been the very scene I was now witnessing?
“There but for the grace of God, go I!” I had been blessed with such wonderful fortune! We had come horrifyingly close to losing our home during that earlier time; but we never actually lost it. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what this man was feeling that day. Every time one of his sons made eye contact with me, I felt at least a small amount of their father’s pain. So, with the simple perspective of the family’s circumstances – the back story, if you will – my attitude had gone from general sympathy to deep compassion. Sympathy had been enough to get me there that day; but not enough to keep me from feeling resentment as my Saturday morning of service ran into Saturday afternoon. Newfound compassion buoyed me through the afternoon, and sustained me as the project stretched well into the evening. Sympathy is weak, and fleeting. Compassion is powerful; and it sustains as it teaches.
You often hear people in church talk about how we should be grateful for our trials. I always thought that was a nice, albeit unrealistic, platitude. Who could ever honestly feel blessed by hardship? But my feelings have changed. I now feel that it is an irrevocable truth – we are blessed by our trials (although I, personally, am not mature or evolved enough to feel any amount of gratitude until after the trial is over). Many of the eternal lessons we are here to learn – most of them, probably – can only be learned under the bright light of perspective. And the “switches” that turn on that light are the most difficult times in our lives – the times when we are at our lowest. How can the Savior love us, even when we constantly add to the pain he suffered on our behalf in Gethsemane? He can because he has compassion for us. Who, after all, could better know the damaging, erosive effects of sin, than he that suffered for all sin? How can our Heavenly Father patiently watch as we make what must seem, in his perfect state, to be repeated, simple, ignorant gaffes? “As man is, God once was.” What he feels is not impatience. He feels the compassionate resolve of a father who knows from experience how painful even simple lessons can be.
I wish I could say that I had mastered this concept. Of course, I have a long way to go before I get there. But just understanding it, even at a simple level, has helped me immensely. It helps with perspective when I struggle. But even more, it helps as I try to be compassionate when those around me struggle. I can’t help but believe that the latter of those scenarios is the important one, in the eternal scheme of things.