Sympathy, Empathy, Solidarity–What Helps When You Hurt


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 and add your voice. 


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


  1. Yep. Some people meet me where I am, and some people try to reach me without dealing with where I am, perhaps because it reminds them of where they could be, and mercifully, aren’t. This little video by Brene Brown distinguishing sympathy and empathy illustrates some of the points you make so movingly in your piece, Tanya

    • It makes such a difference to have people meeting you where you actually are, doesn’t it? And I LOVE Brene Brown – that’s such a perfect video to share in this space, thank you

  2. Mark Allman says:

    As always powerful words weaved together with a deep understanding of struggles. I wonder if the fear you see is fear on having nothing to offer or fear of being asked to do something uncomfortable. I am sure as one who suffers as you do; that you wonder if solitude is your confinement. That loneliness is a defining characteristic of being different. You may have been an angry teenager and I’m sure find yourself angry at times as an adult. I believe that anger is often hurt manifested. I know it hurts to be placed in your situation and it hurts to have loneliness as an unwanted companion.
    I know some of the most meaningful interactions I have had with people is not when someone pulls me out of the well that you mention but like you when they willingly go to the trouble to put themselves in the well too. Another’s presence with or without words at times makes life so much more bearable. Long after someone has gone I don’t remember what they may have said but I remember they were here. Sometimes presence is more valuable than words for the words would be hollow. To have someone sit with you in the dark; in your solitude; in your anger; in your questioning; and not offer anything but them there and their ear can mean so much.
    I admire your interaction with people and that you bring a greater understanding of suffering than most anyone. I know that helps people a great deal. Your words here also help people know that at life’s darkest there is still light and you show people that.

    • Mark! How lovely to see you here! Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments. It’s definitely interesting to explore the fear that is mixed into sympathy – you offer really good explanations about why this is. I felt a bit teary reading your encouraging words about my writing – thank you so much. It means a lot.

  3. Elizabeth Trotter says:

    “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.”

    Um, yes. I really relate on that count. But where do we get these terrible, ridiculous expectations? I feel crushed under the weight of them sometimes. Then when I look around, really look around, and ask who put them there, I find that the answer is ME. *I* put them there. And so I must begin (again) the long, tedious process of taking them off.

    • Ha! Yes – thanks for the solidarity on ministers’ wives pressures! It is weird – pretty much everyone feels them. I remember at a conference someone said, ‘career, family, church ministry – it’s almost impossible to do all three well. Usually you have to choose just two to focus on.’ I think most ministers’ wives feel torn in different directions, unless their ministry is really well integrated with their daily living. Where do these expectations come from? I’d agree with you that we need to take a hard look inside, because often these expectations are internalised.The people I’ve ministered to have (mercifully) never shown these kinds of expectations – we’ve been blessed with amazing church communities, and I’m fairly resistant to expectations put upon me by churches. But I also think Christian conferences are at least partly to blame… somehow women who fit into the ‘doing the impossible’ category are held up for example and praised. In a way this is right – it’s good to celebrate extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. But the problem is that it can set an unhealthy expectation for that to be the ‘norm’. (Also – I tend to think of you as one of the amazing ones 🙂 )

  4. Your writing brings clarity between the foggy line of empathy and sympathy. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your whole-hearted story. 💚

  5. Andrea Christiansen says:

    Thank you for defining these terms! Your illustration is so elegant. The question of how to enter in with someone who is suffering, someone who is grieving, has long been an important question for me. I’m a long way from the answers, but I have learned the importance of ridding myself of the fear of the emotions and pain of others. I must be brave enough to enter in. Thank you for this invitation.

    • “I must be brave enough to enter in” – that’s so true, it takes courage. It takes much of ourselves to truly enter into others’ suffering and offer empathy. This is why caregivers always need care themselves, because of the emotional cost. It is right that we share the burden around

  6. Hannah Parish says:

    Tanya, this is such a beautiful piece. I was recently diagnosed with MS, and it has been a journey in suffering as well. Praying that you would continue to sense God’s presence with you in the suffering and the unresolved- it is so precious to know that our God sees us and mourns with us, even in the darkest moments when our souls are gripped by grief. Solidarity, sister.

    “You have taken account of my wanderings. Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” -Psalm 56:8

    • Oh, beautiful Hannah – I hate that you have this **** illness. MS is HARD. I imagine that at the moment it’s a process of grieving all kinds of things, with times of being fine, and then waves of helplessness and fear and sadness. Even from this comment though, I can see the beauty of your soul, and the fact that you walk closely with God. Thank you so much for your prayers for me – and I’m praying you will know how deeply you are loved by God, and that you would carry God’s peace in your heart, and that that would break through even through the grieving. Solidarity, sister. And oh – that is the perfect, perfect verse. Thank you so much

  7. Diane Down says:

    Your story helps ferrets out solidarity when it would be easy to believe one is walking alone. Thank you.

  8. Lisa Hart says:

    You do manage to time your posts to perfection; sure Someone has a hand in that. I’ve been feeling the isolation more acutely since a relapse before Christmas, but God is blessing my son, who also has ME, with improved health so he is now managing school part-time (straight in to exams, no warning, but he’s coping). So some of the pressure of caring has been lifted off, and I have a wonderful Christian friend who regularly climbs down the well for me, and several others. bringing the light with her. My word from God today is ‘For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light’. May we all see more light.

    • Oh Lisa, I’m so glad that God worked in the timing of this! Relapses are the WORST – and the longer they go on, the longer it feels like it’s never going to end. It must be so hard for you seeing the illness in your son as well – that’s one of the things I most fear. And yet you’re doing it, and loving him so well in the midst of it all. I really admire and respect you. I’m so glad you have a good friend who gets it. We need them. We need them so much. ‘May we all see more light’ AMEN and AMEN – and praying for that to be literally as well as figuratively true for you – hoping this relapse abates SOON. Sending so much love.

  9. Stephanie says:

    “But we also need the stories of those locked in the midst of suffering–the chronic, ongoing, unresolved situations.” Oh my, YES.

    Tanya, you are absolutely a flickering torch, an oasis in the desert. Thank you.

  10. Sandra Hughes says:

    Thank you

  11. Saskia Wishart says:

    Thank you for teaching us once again Tanya, and for highlighting these distinctions.

    • Beautiful Saskia! It was such a joy to see your face the other day! I always value your encouragement so much – thank you so much for your time. Giving you a huge hug.

  12. Tracy Nelson says:

    so beautiful .. so true, too, that “when a person has endured suffering, they carry both grit and tenderness” … thank you for sharing.

  13. Tanya, you have managed to speak truth to those who share with you the burden of suffering and waiting — and also to those who hope to be helpful. Thank you.

  14. What a powerful distinction between empathy and solidarity, Tanya. Thank you for this insight and especially for your transparency.


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