The world isn’t a stable place. That’s not a judgment, it’s an observation. Peace would be easy if everything were static. If we could put things in order, and they would stay where we put them, peace would be easier to get a grip on. It’s more like trying to keep 1000 cats in an area you’ve taped off as designated the “cat area”. Holding onto peace can be like emotional whack-a-mole.
It struck me as I was falling asleep the other day, that even if I figure out how to keep all the moles in their holes, I find myself feeling guilty knowing that I’m about to sleep peacefully while my wife struggles with anxiety on a daily basis. That’s not really fair. We share a life, so why should I get to sleep soundly? Do I not care as much as she does about our lives together? And I’m back to wrestling my way into peace. Do I have to suffer as long as the people close to me are suffering?
I don’t have concrete or new answers to these questions. I can’t change anyone but myself. Of course I don’t believe anyone should have to suffer just because someone else is. Empathy, though, is a great thing to cultivate in one’s self. I think generally men are pretty good at sympathizing. We want to understand and fix the problem. Sometimes a solution isn’t the desired outcome. That’s where empathy comes in.
The differences between sympathy and empathy are subtle in definition, but in practice become very clear. Sympathizers show up at Standing Rock and provoke police, riot, and have loud parties at night. Empathizers show up, quietly take a place in the prayer circle, then ask how they can help and follow the lead of the tribes, even if the answer is to do nothing or go home. Sympathy is hearing and understanding the problem then moving forward by suggesting a plan based on one’s own feelings and ideas. It’s dismissive of the people or person having the issue. I’m learning through marriage and parenthood that sympathy alone a terrible husband a father makes. It’s not all bad though. Sympathy does have its place.
When empathy doesn’t come as naturally, sympathy is a good first step. Sypmathy is good at a distance. It’s good for giving people who feel a need to do something an outlet. Giving money, sharing a story on social media, etc.
When I’ve come to a place of peace while laying in bed and I’m about to drift off, then my wife starts talking about her worries, I have a few options:
A. Pretend I’m asleep and didn’t hear her. Guilt will set in, but I’m almost asleep and I’ll forget all about it. Don’t pretend you’ve never done this one, fellas.
B. Wake up, listen, and tell her how to fix the problem. Tell her she’s looking at it all wrong. Give her resources(books, bible verses, podcasts, etc) that will give her a better perspective on it. Let’s get this taken care of, I have work in the morning. Now she’s angry because I’m not listening? I heard the issue, and gave the solution. What else does she want? Great it’s 5 AM, we’re both wide awake and I don’t even know what we’re fighting about anymore. So much for shalom in the home.
C. Wake up. Listen. Ask if there is anything I can do. Listen. Do as I have been asked. Listen. Sure, it’s 5 AM and today is going to suck, but one thing I don’t have to worry about is if my wife trusts me with her heart. We are at peace. That mole is in its hole. Together we can help each other keep the other moles at bay.
The main difference between sympathy and empathy is consent. Unwanted actions will destroy peace in a millisecond, and intentions are only as good as the perception of the person who’s on the receiving endogenous them. It doesn’t matter if my intentions are to solve my wife’s problems because I love her if she doesn’t want me to solve them because she’s a smart and capable woman who just needs a listening ear or a hug sometimes. It’s a blow to my ego when she rejects my help, but I have to get over myself and try to empathize rather than sympathize. I have to destroy the hero complex I’ve been given by society. We can work together that way, not wasting energy on trying to solve problems we didn’t need to solve. We learn to support each other. We find peace when we can allow space for each other, rather than competing for it.
For the single readers, this idea isn’t just for marriage. It translates to all relationships. It works in politics, work, school, and so on, and so on, and as abtract as you’d like to get. Empathy always leads to more peace. Deeper, broader, and more sustainable peace. I might keep going on this track. I think there’s more here. We shall see…
*Disclaimer: I talk a good talk, but take heart, I’m not a perfect person. More often than not, in the moment, I try to dominate spaces and solve problems without consent. I’m a work in progress, just like you. May you have grace and peace on your journey.