Sympathy, Empathy, Solidarity–What Helps When You Hurt

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Tanya Marlow -Sympathy Empathy Solidarity3

How can you tell the difference between sympathy, empathy and solidarity? I’ll tell you–it’s all in the face.

***

The face of sympathy has a tilted head, a strained smile, and slightly widened eyes. I say face, but it’s normally faces; hundreds of them. In the supermarket, hospital, school, I see them looking at the woman in the wheelchair, taking in my young son, my caring husband.

Thanks to an autoimmune illness, I have to ration my life out in teaspoons, leaving the house just once every two weeks. In many ways I appreciate the sympathetic looks–after all, they’re preferable to disdain or disgust, which is also how disabled people get treated–and my life is worthy of sympathy.

All the same, though, it’s a strange experience to enter a crowded space and see the same facial expression looking down at you: tilted head, strained smile, widened eyes.

Why widened eyes? It’s fear. Whenever you feel sympathy for someone, it’s always tinged with fear–and consequently, distance.

***

The face of empathy has a tilted head, a genuine smile, and loving eyes. At least, that’s how I remember her face. I remember her hair was long, jet black, and she swayed, unashamed, with hands uplifted, when she praised God.

I was seventeen, and my life had been interrupted by glandular fever (mononucleosis) that wouldn’t shift. My goal was Cambridge University or bust–but now my teenage life had been ripped apart by a virus, and I was flooded with doubt about who I was, who God was, and why there was suffering of any kind.

I’d signed up for an Alpha Course, and we sat round a plastic table eating church-catered stew while I ripped into them with unanswerable questions. I’d been a keen-bean Christian since I could first lisp “praise the Lord,” and I could wield Bible verses like a weapon. Some of the leaders were, understandably, a little afraid of this angry teenager who quoted existential philosophers.

But this woman wasn’t afraid. Neither was she confrontational. I remember her kindness with tears, even today. She cradled my questions and anger, feeling their weight. I saw that she had suffered and come through the other side. I don’t know how I knew this, since we never spoke about it, but you could tell. When a person has endured suffering, they carry both grit and tenderness, even in their physical appearance.

She acknowledged my pain, but offered hope. She didn’t do this through clever answers, but she saw the real question I had. “God loves you,” she said–and her confidence in this fact broke me and healed me.

If sympathy is someone looking down at someone who has fallen down a dark well and shouting support from a distance, empathy is climbing down into the well to be with them. She climbed down with me, and even though I still felt helpless, I knew she could see the light at the top, and perhaps a way out, and that kept me going.

***

One of the worst things about suffering is that when you suffer, you suffer alone. Solidarity breaks the isolation of suffering. 

Empathy and solidarity are subtly different. Solidarity is the experience of waiting for someone to climb down to your prison to ease your aching loneliness, only to discover you have a cell-mate already. When you’re at your lowest, looking up for the light, you notice a flickering torchlight in the darkness beside you.

About ten years ago, I found myself in one of the most intimidating situations on earth: a clergy/pastors’ wives conference. There’s an unspoken contract for such conferences to look beautiful, but–crucially–not like you’ve made an effort to look beautiful. This must mirror your life, which should include a successful “secular” job, ministry within the church, supporting your husband, plus at least four beautiful and well-behaved children at home.

On this conference I couldn’t even pretend to compete. I had no beautiful children and no full-time job, because I was waiting to recover from a clinging exhaustion and pain that had only just been named as M.E.* I felt desperately lonely.

Then, amongst the shiny and beautiful faces, I caught the eye of an old friend. We looked at each other, and we just knew. She told me about her child’s cancer diagnosis, and I told her about my weakening legs.

St. Paul speaks of this unique fellowship and comfort forged in the fires of suffering. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” —2 Cor 1:7 (NIVUK) 

There was no tilted head and only a wry smile, but our eyes met, and did not waver.  No matter how different the situations, in suffering, there is an understanding that surpasses words. In suffering, you find instant kinship. 

***

Sometimes we need a ladder out of the well, and the world definitely needs more empathy. But some of us get stuck in the well for an awfully long time, and it’s a hard place to be alone.

There are plenty of stories in the Christian world of those who went through a period of suffering and emerged victorious.

But we also need the stories of those locked in the midst of suffering–the chronic, ongoing, unresolved situations. For this reason I write about my life–I’m extending a flickering torch in the darkness.

Look at my eyes–I will not look away. I will meet your glance, and in my stomach, I will know.

Suffering always feels isolating, but you are not alone. Like Paul, my hope for you is firm. Look around–there are torches everywhere.

 

 

*Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a serious autoimmune neurological disease, which is sometimes subsumed under the broader, vague umbrella of ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’. To find out more about the disease and support the fight to get appropriate treatment, please visit here http://www.meaction.net/subscribe-to-the-meaction-newsletter/ and add your voice. 

 

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Tanya Marlow
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She loves singing opera arias, eating dark chocolate and laughing at her own jokes. (Not at the same time). She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and  get her book for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow