Today I want to tell a story about a child who taught me something really valuable about the difference between sympathy and empathy. She's six years old. Let’s call her Maya (name and identifying details changed for privacy). She’s the youngest daughter of a woman I met this year at the Alternate ROOTS annual meeting.

{Alternate ROOTS is a 40-year-old organization of artists and activists from the South who are working to undo all forms of oppression. It is the most grounded and inspiring community I am ever part of. ROOTS is truly diverse in all ways, and it’s far from perfect, but we aspire over and over again to get our hands dirty and do the work of living in community with each other.}

On the first night I was standing in the lobby of the main building talking to a dear friend who I hadn’t seen since last year’s ROOTS meeting when Maya, a child I’d never met before, walked up to me and took my hands. I paused my conversation and knelt down to talk to her.

“Hi, I’m Bear. What’s your name?” and she introduced herself to me. We hugged and then she kissed my cheek. She met my friend too, then Maya turned to leave. We resumed our adult conversation, but quickly she came back to us. Unprompted, she stroked the end of my nose and said, “I miss you!” We were fast friends.

Over the week I interacted with her in the dining hall and in between activities in the Youth Village. She was clearly having a great week, playing with the dozen other kids who were there. On the final night Maya arrived at the closing dance party for the meeting. It was early and there were just a dozen or so of us on the dance floor. Maya was clearly upset. Eventually she made her way around the dance floor to me. She raised her arms to me in the universal child gesture of “Pick me up!” so I did.

I said, “Are you feeling sad? What’s wrong?” and she cried, “I. Don’t. Want. It to be the. L-a-a-a-aast niiiiiiiiight!!!!!” and I said, “It’s okay Maya, you’ll see them again next year! You’ll come back, and you’ll see them again.” And she said, “But Alabama is a lo-o-o-o-ong way away!!!!!” And I laughed a little bit at her drama and I said, “It’s not so far, Maya. You’ll come back and see all your friends. It’s okay!” And she just cried harder. “Come on, don’t you want to dance with me? Dance! I bet you’ll feel better if you dance!” I cajoled. She would not be consoled.  

I was feeling sympathetic, but then I had a moment of true empathy. I looked at her and I felt her pain. Even though I don’t usually have a total meltdown as I’m leaving ROOTS, I too know the pain of loving and losing that she was feeling. I have cried on the last day before, and I have certainly felt the pain of losing someone I love more permanently, through a move, a breakup or a death. I understood that this child with the open and loving heart, the one who had come up to me and kissed my cheek without knowing me, who told me she missed me moments after meeting me, was hurting.

I felt empathy and I felt compassion. Sympathy, as described by researcher-storyteller Brene Brown, is “Ooh! It’s bad…huh? You want a sandwich?” {Have you seen that cute video of her describing the difference between sympathy and empathy? It's pretty great and it has a bear in it!} Compassion, on the other hand, means ‘to suffer with.’ Having empathy doesn’t have anything to do with trying to fix anyone else’s problems, or showing them how it’s not so bad, or distracting them, or even to trying to make them feel better. Empathy simply asks us to be with the pain of our fellow human. So I tried a different approach. I said,

“Maya, are you sad that you have to leave your friends?” and she said,


“Your heart hurts because you’re going to miss them, doesn’t it?” She nodded. I continued, “Yeah, it’s really hard to leave the people that we love and care about. It’s hard to be apart from them when we love them so much.” And she said,

“I feeeeeeel saa-a-a-a-a-a-d.”

“It’s okay to feel sad,” I said. Do you want me to keep holding you while you feel sad?” She nodded. So I did, dancing with her in my arms.

How often do we try to fix the problems of the people around us rather than simply be with them? We try to get the other person to see that it’s not so bad, to look at the bright side. We think we are being helpful. It is so hard to simply be with another person in their pain because it reminds us of our own pain, our own vulnerability, our own capacity for hurt and trauma. It makes us feel how close our own discomfort always is.

How often do we do that to ourselves as well?  Instead of sitting with the pain, instead of being present to our own uncomfortable sensations, we want out as quickly as possible. (It’s worth noting here that if you are dealing with active trauma or are in crisis, distraction can be a very important and useful tool, and you shouldn’t push yourself to be present with your pain when it feels like too much. Be kind and patient with yourself and consider seeking the help of a therapist or other qualified professional.)

I have spent so much time trying to distract myself from my own suffering. When I feel sad or hurt or angry or afraid, I pour myself a drink or I shop for shoes on the internet or I eat a lot of cookies. Maybe for you it’s smoking cigarettes or watching Netflix. Pay attention this week as you go about your life. Notice when you are distracting yourself from your suffering. See if you can pause and meet yourself with empathy instead. Watch what happens when you do.

After a few minutes Maya popped her head up and said, “I’m ready to get down now.” So I put her down and she ran off to find her sister and some of the other kids. The sadness had moved through her and so she moved on. I watched her from across the room, both of us dancing.

Much love, 




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