For some reason I have had three words rattling around in my head: compassion, pity and empathy. If you look up their definitions, they share similar meanings. They would be considered synonyms. I can’t quite use them in the same way, however, for some reason for me, they differ in meaning by degree. They have different places they are used best and should be used under different circumstances. To each his own, but to me each one wears a slightly different hat.
“Pity” has a shallow ring to it. I am always reminded of (NRSV) James 2.15-16: “15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Feeling pity for someone means I feel sorry for them, but even more to the point I am glad it is them and not me. To pity someone there seems to be a “better than you” situation. I think we pity people who have what we perceive as character deficiencies. It is a word I seldom use. It seems to have a “nose in the air” feeling to it.
I am better with the word “compassion”. To feel compassion you have to get more into the skin of the individual involved. When there is a death in someone’s family I try to show compassion by really attempting to sense how they feel. To use compassion means it is not about me. I would hope people would see me as a compassionate person, who truly feels pain for others in their distress.
Then there is the word “empathy”. Actors try to become empathetic to the characters they are portraying. They have to get under their skin, to become that person as far as it is possible. It is perhaps the closest we come to the saying, “walking a mile in their moccasins”.
“Empathy” is the most difficult of the three because I can never truly know what it is like to be another person. My skin is white. How could I possibly know what it means to be black. Years ago there was a book entitled “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus,” meaning neither sex could truly understand the other. There are some things in life you just have to accept. There is no way I can truly understand the parents who are refugees in Syria and must watch as their children are freezing to death in a humanitarian crisis. True empathy may be taking off your warm coat and giving it to someone who is suffering from the cold, thus putting yourself at risk. We must be very careful to never say the words “I know how you feel.” Every person, every situation is different and we must never presume to know.
I think the best we can hope for is compassion. “I am here for you. No, I don’t know what you are going through, but you hurt so therefore I hurt.”
I am not so sure I want involvement with the word “pity”. There is nothing I have done to be the person I am. I am not better than anyone else. If I am blessed with health, intelligence, and security then in compassion I am to share.
Words do have meaning. Words are powerful and we must be careful how we use them. A word has life when it is spoken or used in communication. What we convey by those words depends on how we interact and communicate with the people to whom they are addressed. So it is better to speak little and listen before we speak.