One time, I was listening in a restaurant to two college students having coffee in the next booth, discussing the project that they were tasked to accomplish: the difference between empathy and sympathy.
“I need an “A” on this project,” the one girl said, “in order to appease my parents. They said if a get all "A's," they would buy me a car.”
“I should get an 'A,' too, in order to stay in school,” the other one lamented.
I couldn't help it, now that I have no filters of any kind since my stroke. I got the attention of one of the girls and said, “Empathy and sympathy? I could help you with that.”
I, who was having a grilled cheese bagel and tea, and my friend, who was eating a Reuben sandwich--corned beef, swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing—and a Coke, slid over to make room for the girls who now came to join us, bringing their coffee in tow.
I thought they were desperate to know because one girl had a car at stake and the other would be in deep doo-doo if she failed the course. And they were just too young to know the difference. I proceeded to tell them, and they had their paper and pens ready to take notes.
“Empathy is comprehending what others are feeling because you were in their shoes yourself or have the ability to put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is providing comfort when some life-changing event occurs to others.
“Empathy and sympathy are both feelings. You can send somebody a sympathy card and forget it. It's just an act of kindness, often impersonal. But with empathy, you get right to the heart of the matter, with thoughts of experiencing the situation yourself.”
And then, I showed some pictures which I had saved from my lecture long ago.
We had an appointment coming up and had to leave, and the girls stood to let us by and soon took their new seats once again.
My friend said, "I know how you feel. I'm happy for you." She was practicing empathy. And she was a professor, too.