Sympathy/empathy. Two words that sound alike, look alike, and are often interchanged without thought. It is hard to believe that I spent 48 years on this earth before I understood how radically different these two similar words really are. The event that brought this revelation into painfully clear focus was a split-second duel with gravity on a wonderfully bright October morning last year. Most shattered elbows can hardly be characterized as life-changing experiences. This one led to tragically disappointing medical procedures and months of therapy that have accomplished little for my mangled limb but restored my faith in people beyond comprehension.

I believe that empathy is the most preciously cherished form of all human communication. Empathy is the gravitational force that bonds souls of the most diverse people on earth into lifetime friends. The differences with its weaker cousin sympathy are too many to list but here are a few that clarify the concept.

Sympathy                                                                   Empathy

Can be purchased at Hallmark                                   Cannot be purchased at any price

Given by many                                                             Craved by many

Minimal emotional investment by the giver            Requires great emotional revelation by                                                                                                the giver

Leaves you indifferent                                                Leaves you warm

Brief pain relief                                                            Lasting healing

Quickly forgotten                                                        Relished forever

Understood                                                                  Experienced

Offered                                                                         Shared

Abundant                                                                     Most rare

Expected                                                                      Unexpected

Learned                                                                       Intuitive

Easy                                                                             Difficult

Shallow                                                                        Deep

Acknowledges                                                            Accepts

Mostly talking                                                            Mostly listening

Tries to solve                                                              Relates

Often religious                                                            Always spiritual

Past tense                                                                   Present tense

The symptom                                                            The cure

Safe                                                                              Risky

Polite                                                                           Real

Too much can be annoying                                      Can’t have enough

Manly                                                                          Godly

My challenge to you is to watch carefully for souls who have lost their own duels with gravity on the endless rocks in life’s road. If you have fallen on that same rock tell them. If not, help them connect with someone else who has tripped on that rock. I guarantee your efforts will be rewarded tenfold and remembered forever.

Kerry O’Connell    7/6/2005


About Kerry O'Connell

Kerry O'Connell is a civil construction project manager and a member of the Colorado Health Facility Acquired Infections Advisory Committee. A committed patient safety advocate, he calls for restoring empathy and compassion in health care. He became a Numerator in 2005.
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