One of the most comforting things that we can experience is when someone validates our pain – they seem to understand it, and recognize it as something that is real.
This is empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
This is subtly different from compassion. Compassion is sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
Empathy is compassion taken to the level of entering into another person’s feelings and experiencing it along with them.
This is closer to what Paul means by “bear one another’s burdens”.
Compassion feels pity and concern, but from a relative distance. It isn’t bad. Compassion is never a bad thing. But empathy allows that compassion to push closer to that person in order to better understand. Empathy makes you feel what they feel, at least as much as anyone can.
Empathy puts you in their shoes.
Mental Illness, and all other forms of Suffering
It’s certainly true of mental illness, that the pain is invisible to others. You can see a broken arm, and easily empathize with how that pain might feel. But with a mental illness that isn’t the case (unless you have experienced it yourself).
So the test of your empathy is much greater. Much of the time you have to simply take the person at their word. You have to believe them, and so often we do not.
Or we imagine that they are just weaker than most people. But do you really think that you are THAT much stronger than everyone else?
As I’ve been thinking about this more, I also think that this is true of all of life’s struggles. We are desperate for empathy. We want someone, anyone, to understand what it’s like to be us.
We want someone to believe us, and really understand. And, yet, we are always disappointed. At least a little. There will always be depths that others cannot understand, no matter how hard they try.
Even with someone that knows you well, and is very empathetic, they will not be able to fully know what it’s like to be you.
The empathy of Jesus
There is one that has not only experienced what you are experiencing, but knows how YOU are experiencing it perfectly.
Jesus not only lived a human life, but He lives in you by His Spirit. When you see him again, you won’t have to tell Him how hard life was. He will already know, and He will know it perfectly.
So the comfort He brings you now, in this life, is not distant. It is compassionate, but not compassionate from a professional distance. His compassion compels Him to empathize with you.
And He will not leave it there. He enters into your pain, and stands in it with you. He stands AS you, in your place. It’s the only way it can be true that He works all things together for our good.
Look For His Comfort
Everyone’s life is hard. We need to be able to admit that, and share that with other people. And we need to be people that are worthy of helping others carry their burdens. We need to become people that enter into other people’s pain, take responsibility for other people.
If you find it difficult to empathize with other people, begin asking Jesus to teach you. He is a master of empathy. He will begin to teach you.