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Learning Word Distinctions the Hard Way

A good writer should always be learning new words every day. After all, words are the tools of a writer's trade. As important as is the learning of new words is the ability to distinguish the various shades of meaning of similar (and often confused) words.

I went back to school to learn the distinction between two words over the past several days. Oh, I already knew the difference between them academically, mentally, intellectually. But this time I learned the distinction experimentally, personally, physically. And I had several classrooms in which I learned the fine points of distinction: at home, in a hospital emergency room, and again at home.

A kidney stone was my teacher, solidifying forever the distinction between the words sympathy and empathy.

I recall from my childhood the several kidney stone attacks my father suffered. And when I say "suffered," I mean agony. Many nights I watched him pacing the back yard in the darkness, water jug in hand, moaning in pain. He never screamed, only and always a low "Ooooh! Ooooh!" The pain got so intense at times, it almost doubled him up. But he kept pacing the yard in the darkness and drinking what seemed to me to be gallons of water.

Daddy was a strong man. He was used to hard, manual labor, having done it all his life. If he hit his thumb or got a big splinter stuck in his hand, the most he ever said was, "Boy! That hurts!"

I remember once when he was making some renovations to our house on Fort Sumter Road in Halls, and he was sawing a board using his circular saw. In a move uncharacteristic of him, he reached under the board to see if the blade was going all the way through. He didn't want splintering. The blade sliced into two of his fingers. He didn't cry out. He jerked his hand away, shook off the blood, and wrapped his fingers in his handkerchief.

"I shouldn't have done that!" he deadpanned. "Boy! It sure hurts!"

Only on two occasions do I recall Daddy's ever crying. One was when Mother died after he, Mother, and Gina, my sister, on their way to church on Sunday night before Christmas, had been hit by a drunk driver. The other was during the worst of one of his kidney stone attacks.

I sympathized with Daddy in his kidney stone-induced pain.

My father-in-law also suffered from kidney stones. I've heard him tell tales of pain and agony. He says he used to collect in a bottle all the stones he passed, but he had so many attacks that he finally quit collecting them.

"I took the ones I'd collected and finished graveling our driveway," he joked.

I sympathized with my father-in-law.

I've heard that kidney stones vary in size from the diameter of a grain of sand to small pebbles. My sister-in-law had a kidney stone attack that produced a boulder.

I sympathized with her in her suffering.

My various experiences with kidney stones expanded when one of my sons-in-law faced a challenge by the grandfather of all kidney stones. It was so big the doctors had to blast it into tiny pieces.

I sympathized with my son-in-law.

An ER nurse tried to console me in my own agony by glibly saying, "Yes, the CT scan confirmed that you definitely have a kidney stone. But it's just a small one, and you should be able to pass it at home."

I don't think that nurse has learned the fine line between word definitions. Small in her mind was anything but small in my ureter!

Through this experience I've learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. I no longer sympathize with anyone suffering a kidney stone attack. Not that I don't care about their agony. It's just that now I empathize with them.

Boy! Do I empathize!

And, by the way, at the time of this writing, I'm STILL learning the distinction between those two words.

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