Surface Level When I was younger I was only able to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy on the surface. I could see the difference when people became informed of a tragedy. Some responded while others reacted. The response to tragic news was guided by logic to offer the correct compassion and condolences to those directly impacted. On the flip side, the reaction to tragic news was guided by emotions. It was an impulsive feeling that invaded the individual indirectly affected that places the individual in the shoes of those who directly experienced the pain. I remember, that whenever my middle school religion teacher, Ms. Knowlden, heard an ambulance, her face would immediately fall closing her eyes with sadness and would dedicate a few moments to offer a prayer of hope for whoever was in that ambulance. She was empathizing. I knew very few people who were able to empathize, so when I saw faces fall and eyes water up it stood out to me as something different than the routine sympathy. Although I knew what empathy was, I did not know how to empathize nor have I ever gone through something in which people had empathy for me.
Diving Below Going into my freshman year of college I was overwhelmed with excitement. I was attending my top choice for school and felt ready to start a new chapter of my life away from home, or so I thought. On the last day of my summer job, working as a nanny for a family friend, after I hugged the parents and kids goodbye I started to cry. At that moment the fact that I was leaving hit me and I was not ready. From there on I grew more and more scared and anxious about leaving my home, my family, and my friends. I was the first to leave for college out of my friends, and once I did we all hugged and cried together saying goodbye until thanksgiving, the longest we have been apart from each other in fours years.
When I arrived at school the original excitement started to come back and I was able to manage saying goodbye to my parents without crying knowing that they are only ever just a phone call away. However, that excitement served as just a temporary mask of my hidden fear. I started to miss my home more and more as each week passed. I would call my friends but I knew that I couldn’t bombard my friends with how sad and lonely I am at school when they are starting to enjoy where they are. The few times I did they could only offer me their sympathy and try to encourage me to make a better effort to like my school. Although I knew they were right, I wasn’t ready to fully come out of my shell to help myself make something more of my freshman year of college. I was introverted and I was that way for as long as I could remember. However I was lucky enough to cross paths with someone that was like me, another introvert.
In my dorm, the guy named Luke lived across the hall from me and he also happened to be in the same orientation group from me. Since we had already previously met, it was less difficult for us to become friends. He was a soft-spoken shy guy from California, and with I also being a wallflower from Colorado we found to have a lot in common with each other. We shared a similar perspective on the state of Texas; we both liked watching old Disney Channel movies; and we both really missed home and didn’t like TCU. However, even though Luke and I both struggled living away from home we were able to talk about it on positive terms. Luke was set on making himself like TCU he didn’t want to transfer. He wanted to make it. He empathized with me, he felt everything that I did. When I was homesick, he would become homesick. When he was homesick, I would become homesick. Our empathy for each other brought us together, but we didn’t use it as a means to feed into that negativity. His empathy increased our motivation to improve our college experience.
Resurfacing Even though Luke’s empathy served as a source of encouragement, I still transferred to CU Boulder and he remained at TCU. Nonetheless, things proved to be better for me at CU and he found several organizations back at TCU that helped him find his place there. We are still close friends and that is due to that initial bonding force of empathy. Although empathy places you in the shoes of someone experiencing pain and sadness, the transferred emotion can still be used to help the person cope.