I have a confession to make. I’m nosey, probably because I used to be a reporter. I listen in on everything—a cell phone call, restaurant chatter, a conversation between folks sitting on a bench. Then my imagination takes over and I think I’m a reporter again, creating all sorts of scenarios for why the talk happened in the first place. That process keeps my mind sharp, or as sharp as it can be for someone with a brain injury from my stroke.
One time, I was listening in a restaurant to two college students having coffee in the next booth, discussing the project that they were tasked to accomplish: the difference between empathy and sympathy.
“I need an “A” on this project,” the one girl said, “in order to appease my parents. They said if a get all “A’s,” they would buy me a car.”
“I should get an ‘A,’ too, in order to stay in school,” the other one lamented.
I couldn’t help it, now that I have no filters of any kind since my stroke. I got the attention of one of the girls and said, “Empathy and sympathy? I could help you with that.”
I, who was having a grilled cheese bagel and tea, and my friend, who was eating a Reuben sandwich–corned beef, swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing—and a Coke, slid over to make room for the girls who now came to join us, bringing their coffee in tow.
I thought they were desperate to know because one girl had a car at stake and the other would be in deep doo-doo if she failed the course. And they were just too young to know the difference. I proceeded to tell them, and they had their paper and pens ready to take notes.
“Empathy is comprehending what others are feeling because you were in their shoes yourself or have the ability to put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is providing comfort when some life-changing event occurs to others.
“Empathy and sympathy are both feelings. You can send somebody a sympathy card and forget it. It’s just an act of kindness, often impersonal. But with empathy, you get right to the heart of the matter, with thoughts of experiencing the situation yourself.”
And then, I showed some pictures which I had saved from my lecture long ago.
Even though they were years younger than me, around 50 years or so my junior, they were smart enough to comprehend.
One of the girls, who was promised a car if she achieved all “A’s” asked, “So empathy is harder than sympathy.”
“That’s right,” I replied. “Empathy is harder, and it’s more helpful but less common; sympathy is less helpful but more common.“
I told them a story of what happened to me in the hospital when I had my stroke.
“Somebody who will remain nameless sent me a sympathy card that said, ‘Sorry to hear of your loss.’ I felt like I had died. But I didn’t. She should have sent a ‘get well’ or ‘thinking of you’ card. So sympathy cards should be carefully selected, for mainly death in the family or friendship circle. Sending a sympathy card to a stroke survivor is wrong, mainly because they survived.”
I was starting to lose their attention with my story, true though it was. I went on with more detail and their pens were poised once again.
“Empathy can apply to lots more things than death, like getting caught in the rain without an umbrella when you’re going to someplace important, losing lots of weight, or changing a tire on a busy highway. If you experienced any of those things, then you know what you’re talking about when you say, ‘I know how you feel.’ And empathy can apply to good things, too.”
The girl who had to get an “A” in the project to not bomb out yawned loudly. And then she yawned again. The “car” girl wasn’t far behind, but she stifled the yawn out of respect for me.
We had an appointment coming up and had to leave, and the girls stood to let us by and soon took their new seats once again.
“Thank you,” the girls said in unison.
“It was my pleasure,” I said. And it was. I was the professor again and I felt great. On the way out, I said, “I’m glad I had the opportunity to teach those girls.“
My friend said, “I know how you feel. I’m happy for you.” She was practicing empathy. And she was a professor, too.