Compassion vs Empathy: My Lesson in Humility

Compassion =  feelings of pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Empathy = the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I’ve always considered myself a compassionate person.  I feel sorry for those who are going through hard times; who deal with a painful health condition on a daily basis; those who struggle to cope for whatever reason.  My heart breaks if I hear about or witness cruelty or abuse to any living thing or when I hear of someone who has lost a loved one due to accident or illness.   I also believed, until lately, that I was empathetic as well but I’m beginning to realize I really wasn’t.

I did something to my back, recently, that caused me excruciating pain whenever I bent over slightly.  I had a hard time straightening up, walking, sitting, or, even, sleeping.  It was like a bad toothache in my lower back that never subsided coupled with a knife-like stabbing pain whenever I bent, even slightly.  I tried heat, cold, stretching, chiropractor, and yoga.  “You need to strengthen your core”, everyone advised.  But it’s hard to do that when you can hardly move. As someone who hates taking painkillers or meds of any kind, I finally resorted to some strong OTC pain meds and was taking them every couple of hours.  This lasted for about a week and, finally, I felt almost normal.  Then, a couple of weeks later, out of the blue, it came back.  I could hardly get out of bed.  I was frustrated, pissed off, and feeling sorry for myself.  Why was this happening again?  What was causing this pain?

I started to think that this could become my new normal and that made me feel depressed and defeated. I lacked the energy to do the things that bring me joy, and, was fast developing a “who cares?” attitude.  I was terrified.  But, I also began to really “see” and acknowledge those who live this way every single day.  To those of you who spend your days going to doctors who tell you “it’s all in your head”; who somehow scrape together enough physical and mental energy to care for your kids and family; who continue to work so you can keep your bills paid; and, in spite of all you’re going through still manage to find snippets of joy in your life, however brief they may be, I appreciate and applaud and have EMPATHY for you.

I understand a tiny bit more how, even when you go to bed at night knowing tomorrow might not be any better, you hang on to any moments of relief and normalcy you are given for all they’re worth. Those moments are what get you through and can keep you going. I also realized how mentally hard it is to cope with pain and I only went through it for a short time. It’s hard to smile or enjoy anything when pain is jabbing its sharp talons into you.  And while you might look perfectly fine on the outside, there are those who will judge you without ever having walked in your shoes.

So I want to apologize.  I’m sorry for having had those very thoughts myself, at times.  Never again will I assume anything about anyone.  I’ve come to understand how easy it is to sit on my high throne of righteousness and look down on those who, through no fault of their own, are suffering. Maybe that’s why my pain visited me – to open up my eyes.  To show me my failings and to remind me that there but for the grace of God, go I.  I stand humbled but grateful; ashamed but anointed, with a renewed sense of compassion AND empathy for all who walk beside me. Some lessons must be learned the hard way and, if we’re fortunate, we will learn them and be a better person for having done so.   May more of us be so fortunate.

Humanity = all the human inhabitants of the earth; the  quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence

About Mary-Lou Rosengren

Mary-Lou Rosengren is a writer and author, mother, wife, and proud grandmother who believes life is a gift and we should live it to our potential. It's not always pretty or fun or, even, fulfilling but it IS ours to make the most of.  Click HERE to find out more!

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