Empathy or Sympathy: Finding An Emotional Connection
When my father was dying, I heard a myriad of stories about the difficulties he was going through. All of my adult life, I have found myself relating more and more to him in both a physical and an emotional manner. There is no denying a few parallels in our temperament, ranging from our sense of humor to a certain untenable stubbornness. And I sure as heck look more like him every year, even more so now, since my cancer treatment caused my hair to fall out at long last. And yet, across the nearly 3000-mile divide between us, I struggled to relate with his experience during his final days.
Seeing past my father's facade
He always put on his best phone voice for me. He peppered our conversations with sly optimism. Even in our final chat, the last one he ever had, we only talked about how I was on my way and looking forward to seeing him soon. Although he was already in hospice care, I could hear in his tired voice nothing but the subtle anticipation of my arrival, and the joy from having spoken with me.
Within the hour he was in a coma from which he would never wake up.
Understanding and accepting my father
My dad was a liar. I believe in my heart he was a good man, even with noble intentions, but chief among his flaws was his determined skill at hiding his inner feelings. He worked hard at it, creating an undeniable anger and resentment underneath his steady veneer. It was one of the earlier things I remember learning about his personality, even if it would take decades to start unearthing the reasons why. I wanted desperately to relate to him on a deeper level. I still try to find new ways, even years after his death.
Back in college, I remember being gently startled by my reflection one morning when I realized that I was looking into my father's eyes. That moment put me on a track, seeking understanding of the man behind those eyes. I would question him more intently about his past and particularly his youth, trying to find ways to relate to his experience through my own. As the decades ticked on, I did develop quite a bit of empathy for a man who was often difficult to know.
Finding sympathy through shared experience
Finding sympathy for him was somewhat harder. While I was proud of him in most ways, I strongly disapproved of many things he did. But I wanted to sympathize with who he was and what he went through as a human being.
In his final days, I know my father was in an enormous amount of pain. I've heard stories about how he would kneel alone at the side of the bed and cry, begging for it all to end. Recently, there have been times when I have crumpled in agony, bitten back tears or just let them flow, and even howled in pain.
While it does no good for the relationship we had, the empathy I was able to build through my own personal experience filters my reflections of my dad. But I can get up and walk away from the pain. That is something he could not do. I still cannot fully relate to his experience. I cannot develop the true sympathy I wish I had.
I can sympathize with his swollen legs or the sheer volume of pills that he had to take -- and their often conflicting side effects. By now, I can also sympathize with many of his life choices, and even his sense of regret. There is, of course, more that I will never understand than what I actually will. But our lives have been a testing ground for finding a way to connect on a deeper emotional level.
Building true empathy
I find that seeking such connections allows for more honest relationships. And as a cancer patient, I see the struggle people have attempting to relate to what I'm going through. The vast majority of them simply cannot sympathize with my situation, much less that of my family. They try. I appreciate the effort and hope they are never fully able. The ones that do, of course, share a certain quiet aspect of what I am going through or are there in ways for my family that others are not, but they are few and far between. Sympathy, after all, is more than platitudes. It is a deeply personal connection.
But empathy can be built. It takes work because we have to find ways to relate to one another. There is an effort involved in seeking. But it is an effort that rewards both sides. While true sympathy may be elusive, empathy is available to us all. Not surprisingly, a little empathy can go an extremely long way. And lives can change for the better when we learn to look one another in the eyes and speak the truth of our relationships.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
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