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Sympathy is Easy, but Empathy Changes Hearts

John shares an intimate story that illustrates the beauty of empathy.

“Sympathy is easy because it comes from a position of power. Empathy is getting down on your knees and looking someone else in the eye, and realizing that you could be them, and that all that separates you is luck.” -Dennis Lahane

While on my knees next to my fallen dad several years ago, I thought of this quote.

Dad has been living with Parkinson’s disease for almost three decades. Over this time, he’s lost the ability to walk, drive and earn. It’s difficult for my dad to speak and lately, becoming more difficult to swallow.

And yet today, Dad, seated in his trusty wheelchair, is the perfect embodiment of the joy we all wish we possessed.

He engages with those around him. He smiles and laughs easily. He’s grateful for all he has and content with his life. Dad deals with constant pain and is racked with continuous challenges, but simply refuses to be a victim to his circumstances.

But even as his son, it’s easy to miss the totality of his difficulties. When I see Dad, he’s got his khaki pants on, shirt tucked in, hair brushed, and smile on. He makes it look easy.

But with Mom away for a weekend with her daughters several years ago, I saw firsthand how hard it actually is.

Every single movement Dad made was ripe with risk and a chance of pain. Due to a torn rotator cuff, he was unable to use his right arm, which created far greater stress on his left arm. Simple activities many of us take for granted – rising from his bed, sitting up, pivoting into a wheelchair, rolling toward the bathroom, getting dressed – required great effort.

I obviously suspected it was hard, but staying with my dad and caring for him in my mother’s absence gave me a totally different understanding.

As we prepared for bed, I rolled Dad into the bathroom. I helped him change, wash his face, and use the bathroom. As he stood to transfer, Dad lost his balance, I lost my grip, and we both fell.

It wasn’t physically painful for either of us, but it was eye opening for me.

There we were, on a cold tile floor. My sweet dad struggling to get back into the chair. His under-powered son trying to help, but also mindful of sore limbs and cautious not to cause greater injury.

On our hands and knees, we caught our breath. For a long while, we just stared at each other.

No words were spoken. None had to be. And perhaps for the first time since my father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis I had sincere, heart-wrenching, eye-opening empathy for what this brave man deals with each day.

As his caretaker that evening, though, my heart expanded even more for his primary caretaker, his awesome wife, my remarkable mom.

Like my dad, Mom never complains. A mighty reason why their life is as beautiful as it is stems from her steadfast faithfulness, ferocious optimism, and loving stubbornness. She just refuses to give in or to give up. She simply loves life too much for that attitude.  And she loves her husband too much.

It just took laying on their tile bathroom floor for me to see it clearly.

(I was reminded of this experience while interviewing Dr. Sarah Teten Canter on our podcast last week. If you are one of the more than 54 million people responsible for caregiving for a loved one, she’s an expert on positive caregiving and has an amazing life story to share. Check it out here.)

My friends, the best way to really know about someone else is to be humble enough to get down on our knees, meet them where they are, look them in the eye, and realize that we could be them.

Sometimes the person we’ll connect more deeply with will be someone we may not look, vote, worship, or act like. Other times, it will be a person you’ve loved your entire life that you’re fortunate enough to call Dad.

This is your day. Live Inspired.

4 replies on “Sympathy is Easy, but Empathy Changes Hearts”

It takes the same amount of time to judge others for their weaknesses -as it does to take time to put yourself in their shoes. Our world is full of self gratification and self- which breeds emptiness and victimn status. Your family took a tragedy and together grew into hearts of hope and faith- not only in words – but action. I try to always be in an empathetic mindset- but at times let the ways of my world allow me to get caught up in unbecoming behavior. I am Thankful for meeting you and your continual demonstration of walking the walk- but opening up time to talk – because we all fall short and it’s only through continued reinforcement with like minded people that can help keep us on the right path. Thank you for your message!

Also – on my continual amazement of how God keeps you guys on my mind…..I met yet another fan of yours in Texas!! Kathy Perry -who wrote “The Rubberband Resliliant Leader” was our guest speaker at my women’s lunch during my convention- I had the opportunity to talk with her after —-found out she came from same town as me and a million similarities- which made me tell of our story!!! Small world she was already a fan of yours! Thank you for changing the world and helping guide so many to do the same!

Someone once told me that empathy is “your pain in my heart”! Thank you for sharing this personal account of your beautiful parents and the way they face PD together. As the fastest growing neurological disease in the world, it reaches across all age barriers, so more and more of us will be faced with these challenges in it’s various forms. The rest of us need to be empathetic and understanding!

John- awesome Monday motivation as usual but this one is obviously close to me since I grew up with your amazing parents.❤️

Loved your blog this morning on the distinction of sympathy and empathy — it really is so on target. I have volunteered in a children’s hospital doing bedside support for over 30 years and I believe it is when you imagine yourself in someone else’s position/’shoes’ that you can really connect with them. Your sharing of being a caretaker for your Dad and not knowing how difficult it is on your Mom, is one that is lived every day by so many people that deserve our support and kindness. There was a video produced by Cleveland Clinic in 2013 that really hits home on the challenge and stories behind each person….with a focus on empathy – https://vimeo.com/95254011 I share it with people entering healthcare and also use it to communicate why healthcare providers and patients need to be kind to each other….and how we can better understand each other.

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