Stronger than Sympathy
I remember an elementary school teacher explaining the difference between sympathy and empathy to our class. She said that sympathy is feeling compassion for someone in a difficult condition, such as poverty or sickness or loss, whereas empathy is the ability to feel compassion and personally relate to the same condition.
em-pa-thy : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
The capacity to vicariously experience. Sympathy with memory. It is a powerful ability. It is why we chose to live in an Akha village.
We experience the lives we sympathize with.
We experience the pains we minister to.
We experience first-hand the Akha experience.
Now, we know this experience, this empathy, will never be complete. We will never fully understand all their hardships. They will always be Akha and we will always be American, there will always be a difference in backgrounds and experiences. But we desire, for better and for worse, to relate as best as we can.
Today, I'm relating for worse.
Last week, one of the leaders of our village came to me and said "You need to come down and pray for Mi Shui's dad." So, off we went to see what was the matter. It was early evening and as we walked into their home, Ado Pa was in terrible discomfort, itching his thighs and behind his shoulders. It was scabies, and one of the worst cases we had seen.
We have seen many cases of scabies in our mobile Akha clinic. Sarcoptes scabiei, that dastardly little mite, burrows into the skin and lays more little mites causing inflammation and horrible itching, especially at night. It can easily be passed by blankets, mattresses and contact in an Akha village.
We prayed for Mi Shui's dad and gave him Benzyl Benzoate cream for the mites in his skin, gave him instructions to lay out his bedding in the sun to kill the mites in his blankets and gave him our sympathy for his discomfort. Then, two nights ago, little red welts began to appear on my skin and when the evening came these little welts began to itch like mosquito bites on chicken pox.
Now I really feel compassion for Mi Shui's dad. I understand firsthand how miserable it is, and when I think of all those nights he was in such discomfort because he doesn't speak enough Thai to go to a local clinic, or read enough Thai to purchase the medicine himself, or make enough money to purchase medicine if he could.
We will always have medicine available for the Akha we meet with scabies. They shouldn't have to endure that discomfort.
Empathy truly is stronger than sympathy.