Bout of illness a reminder to seek empathy with, not sympathy for, others

by Bill Tammeus

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I should have paid better attention to the language my body sometimes speaks -- normal processes a bit off, anomalous aches that won't quite disappear. That sort of thing.

It would have saved me a recent trip to an emergency room in Arkansas and an overnight hospital stay. That led to surgery to remove a kidney stone back in Kansas City, Mo., and a slower-than-expected recovery.

And yet if I had avoided all that, I might also have missed the chance to be reminded of my own inevitable demise and of what it might feel like to be out of sorts daily, as some people are. That reminder has helped me be a bit more sensitive to others who are suffering in ways I almost never do.

In the first chapter of the book of James, we are told that true religion is "to look after orphans and widows in their distress."

But how can we have true religion if we have lost touch with the distress of others, the sick and lonely, the brokenhearted and hopeless? Sometimes we must run into the ditch ourselves to remember that others have slipped into it before us -- and are still there, struggling to right themselves.

That's what a rare bout of ill health did for me.

I had most of my illness as a child. I had pneumonia three times in grade school, and I'm told I almost succumbed to it once. When I lived in India for two years as a boy, I also contracted various diseases that strangers to new climates and cultures sometimes get.

But I survived all that. And in almost 37 years of full-time work for The Kansas City Star, I think I missed a total of three and a half days because of illness. So feeling a bit off plumb is such an unexpected experience for me that when it happens, I simply assume there's some temporary cause that will fix itself quickly.

Which is why I ignored my symptoms, got in the car with my wife on a Monday morning and headed to visit friends in New Orleans, with a stop to see other friends in Arkansas on the way.

When we got to Arkansas, I was whipped. I excused myself to lie down. The longer I lay there, the more I wondered whether I was about to experience something like a ruptured appendix. I knew that could be serious, so my wife, friends and I headed to the local hospital's emergency room.

Several hours and tests later, the issue was clear -- not my appendix, but a major league kidney stone, one the hospital there couldn't deal with. So they gave me an ambulance ride to a hospital 40-some minutes away for an overnight.

The next morning, the doctor told me my options, which included being able to head home for the necessary surgery. And that's what I did.

In my languid recovery, I felt obligated several times a day just to park in a big old chair and rest. I'm not a resting sort. I don't take naps. I just keep going.

But as I cooled my jets, I began to think anew about the people with whom I do some volunteer work in a 24-hour skilled nursing facility for AIDS/HIV patients. Those folks suffer every day from some physical ailment or dementia or some other indignity of the body and from intimations of mortality. And although I've been aware of that, my own recent experience moved me from sympathy to empathy.

That, it turns out, is an important trip to make. Sympathy implies cool distance. Empathy requires identification with the one suffering. With sympathy, you acknowledge the pain of others. With empathy, you take that pain upon yourself as much as possible.

Jesus on the cross did not sympathize with us. He empathized with us. And by his stripes we are healed. Lesson relearned.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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