When ‘sorry’ loses its meaning, reclaim empathy

“I am so sorry you’re going through that,” was a phrase that always made me cringe until I really needed to hear it myself. I’ve always wondered: How can someone be sorry for something that they did not cause? Why do we as humans say “sorry” if we are not apologizing for actual personal wrongdoing?

As a child, using the word “sorry” to apologize to my siblings sarcastically, without actual remorse, or just to get out of punishment for wrongdoings caused the word to lose meaning and value. Additionally, noticing overuse of the word “sorry” as an inaccurate filler-word caused it to no longer bear any weight of meaning when expressing real contrition.

As an adult, to give my personal apologies more meaning, I choose to forgo the word “sorry” from my vocabulary altogether, save for awkward apologies to strangers when I clumsily bump into them at the grocery store. I’ve replaced “sorry” with the phrase “will you forgive me?” and have invited my husband to do the same, so our apologies could have real meaning.

However, I’ve come to realize that eradicating the word “sorry” entirely from my vocabulary fails to meet some level of human needs. In the English language, we use “sorry” at least in two ways — firstly to apologize, and secondly to express distress at others misfortunes. “Sorry” as an expression to another’s misfortune fills in a gap of the English language by recognizing the pain and suffering in another’s experience. It is like saying, “I see what you’re going through.” It is an expression of sympathy for another.

Yet, I still have an aversion for the phrase, but I think this can be explained by knowing that sympathy alone can fall flat. Imagine sharing with someone your greatest suffering or sorrow in life. Receiving a “sorry” can have meaning, but the meaning grows when it develops into an expression of empathy.

I’ve encountered a prominent misconception that empathy is only something one can have if they’ve been through the same experience of pain as someone else. This is far from true. While it might be easier for those with a common specific disease or misfortune in a support group to empathize with one another, empathy is an expression that every human person can make in response to the suffering of another human person.

Empathy moves from “I’m sorry for what you’re going through” into the zone of “please let me walk with you through this.” While sympathy sees the pain of another, empathy is accompaniment through the pain. It is when one steps outside of themselves and go out of their way (and maybe even out of their comfort zone) to escort and attend to the needs of another. Empathy works to break the chains of isolation in suffering. It reminds the sufferer that they are not alone. Empathy is an expression of God’s mercy. It reveres and recognizes the dignity in the other. When one expresses empathy to another, they can become a reminder of the love of the Father to the person suffering.

One of my favorite examples of empathy is the life of St. Mother Teresa. An Albanian woman from a wealthy family, she chose to devote her life to empathy through expressing God’s mercy, living among the poor she served. The little sister ministered without discrimination to the marginalized, non-Christians and even people who disagreed with her. Mother Teresa went so far as to change her own life to share the experiences and accompany the sufferings of those she served. She took on their culture as her own, even to the point today that many mistakenly think Mother Teresa was Indian. Mother Teresa found who she was called to be in surrendering her former identity to God’s mercy.

Empathy requires trust. Many people never move beyond the sympathetic expression of “I’m sorry for what you’re going through,” because they fear their own personal sufferings and sorrows will be overlooked by others. To express empathy, one must draw from the source of mercy itself. Mother Teresa spent hours in prayer before the Eucharist each day. At her convent in Calcutta, there is a statue on the floor of her on her knees folded over in prayer. She centered herself on God’s mercy so she could be used as an instrument to pour it out over others. She gave God’s mercy even to people who disagreed with her or plotted against her good work.

Taking a step toward empathy is taking a step toward God’s mercy. Like Mother Teresa, all Christians should strive to show empathy to others, even those with whom we fundamentally disagree. It is in losing oneself to God’s mercy that one can find who they are called to be.

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