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When my neighbor or friend is in pain, I feel sorry for his or her distress and extend a form of sympathy. It sounds like, I’m sorry for your pain. My question is, when I am also experiencing a physical malady, when does that sympathy become empathy? And which of us is improved by that transition?

My best guess is that most of us are more likely to accept empathy than sympathy. Back in those (sadly) forgotten days when people frequently sent paper greeting cards, sympathy cards were for the death of someone. As hard as I try, I don’t remember ever seeing an empathy card.

Before I attempt to persuade online greeting cards to initiate empathy cards, do most of us want or need empathy? Think back to your last personal crisis, regardless of its significance. Yes, I realize that “crisis” suggests a major event but that’s only true outside a kindergarten or first grade classroom. Do you feel any better or worse upon hearing, “I know just how you feel.”

Searching for an absolute yes or no is pointless. Clearly it depends on the person making the comment and the situation being referenced. No matter what, our responses will be kinder than they would be to, “I’m so sorry for you.”

For my part, I reserve sympathy for loss of life. Families of those who die in acts of war or terrorism are deserving of all the sympathy we can muster. Very often, expressions of sympathy are truly appreciated, especially when other gestures are unavailable.

But empathy is much more accessible and potentially just as valuable. Telling a friend or loved one, “I know that your heart is broken by the end of this relationship – what can I do to help?” is substantially more useful than, “I’m sorry.” This expression may or may not be accompanied by, “I’ve been there myself.” That person may care that you understand break-ups for having had one, but ultimately, we should realize that our losses don’t mitigate those of others.

As with so many of the actions that we take toward others, empathy can be meaningful when sincerely delivered. If we want to give the best of ourselves to those needing and wanting to receive it, this is a powerful way to do so. Shalom.

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