Recently I heard a good description of both sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you see someone in a hole, look down, and say, “Wow, it must be tough down there in that hole!” Empathy is when you see someone in a hole and climb down into the hole with them. The result is that the person in the hole is no longer alone and the one who climbed down is experiencing firsthand the other person’s dilemma. It may not be fun for the one who climbs down, but it sure does soothe the soul of the hole dweller. I just experienced this for myself.

It was Thursday evening. I joined the crowd that was pouring into the church like iced tea on a summer afternoon. A crowd this size was unusual for the middle of the week but this get together was special. It was a celebration of the life of a much cherished member of our church. I didn’t really expect to see anyone I knew in the packed auditorium.

Then I turned the corner and almost bumped into her—Susan, one of my favorite people on the planet. She was surprised to see me and invited me to join her.

The music began and immediately we were on our feet. As the band played, we stood and sang along with feeling. We sang for quite awhile. We sang for so long I began to get distracted.

Now I know this sounds terrible, because the person we were celebrating deserved all our attention. But something was interfering with my heartfelt participation. My feet hurt. I mean they really hurt. It had been a very busy month and I had been standing in a new pair of shoes for the last 10 hours. Not to mention for the last 4 weeks. It’s hard to pay attention when you have to stand on a part of you that hurts. My powers of concentration were quickly waning.

Finally, I decided I needed to sit down. A little embarrassed at looking like the sole slacker in the crowd, I leaned over with a short explanation for Susan.

“My feet hurt. I’m going to sit down,” I said. She looked at me, nodded and smiled, and said, “Well then, I’ll sit with you.”

Once seated, we couldn’t see anything but that big ole ocean of people. It’s as if we had descended into a little rabbit hole. My view was now chair backs and knees and well, parts directly above those knees. Add another distraction to my list.

I felt bad for Susan. She had been so happy on her feet before my feet gave out, belting out the familiar songs with the crowd. Now, because of her big heart, she was down in a hole with me. I tried to persuade her that I was fine in the darkness looking at peoples’ knees by myself. But she just smiled serenely, shook her head and said, “No, that’s ok.” We were the only ones seated for the next 20 minutes. It could have been an awkward time for me, but it wasn’t. Holes aren’t as dark when someone else is with you.

It may sound silly, but Susan’s gesture really touched my heart. It seems this empathy thing really works.

That evening I learned that it is easier to hope when you know you aren’t alone. So, even when you can no longer stand, having a friend sit beside you can be a balm for more than your weary feet. It’s medicine for your soul, too.

Thanks, my friend.