LOVE’S LORDS IN WAITING: SYMPATHY
Sympathy with One, a Key to All.—Sympathy is a Lord of the Bosom who is rather unfairly treated. He is made to adopt a sentimental character and go about the world wiping tears and soothing distresses; and this is supposed to be the whole of his work. But Sympathy is comprehension; and he reaps harvests of joy for himself, though occasionally he must sorrow. For to understand one human being so completely that you feel his feelings and think his thoughts is really like gaining possession of a new world; it is gaining the power of living in another’s life. It is as if the heart got room to expand, and one began to understand the large life of the angels of God. Occasionally we have an almost perfect sympathy with one person, and we allow it to become exclusive; we know that one to the exclusion of all others; but that is turning to selfish uses a gift meant for the general good. Each trait we know in one person should be to us as a key wherewith to open the natures of others. If we find that it is possible to wound one person with a word, beat one person with a look, let that knowledge make us tender and delicate in our dealings with all people; for how do we know
how much power we have to hurt? If we know our person who grows pale at a lofty thought, whose tears come at the telling of a heroic action, let us learn, from that, that these are the thoughts and actions which have power to move us all; therefore, we must give freely of our best, without the supercilious notion that So-and-so would not understand. If music, poetry, art, give us joy, let us not hesitate to present these joys to others; for, indeed, those others are all made in all points like as we are, though with a different experience. The orator whose Sympathy is awake appeals to the generosity, delicacy, courage, loyalty of a mixed mob of people; and he never appeals in vain. His Sympathy, his comprehension, has discerned all these riches of the heart in the unpromising crowd before him; and, like Ariel released from his tree prison, a beautiful human being leaps out of many a human prison at the touch of this key.
A Lever to Raise.—Sympathy is an eye to discern, a lever to raise, an arm to sustain. The service to the world that has been done by the great thinkers—the poets and the artists—and by the great doers—the heroes—is, that they have put out feelers, as it were, for our Sympathy. A picture or poem, or the story of a noble deed, ‘finds’ us, we say. We, too, think that thought or live in that action, and, immediately, we are elevated and sustained. This is the sympathy we owe to our fellows, near and far off. If we have anything good to give, let us give it, knowing with certainty that they will respond. If we fail to give this Sympathy, if we regard the people about us as thinking small, unworthy thoughts, doing mean, unworthy actions, and incapable of better things, we reap our reward. We are really, though we are not
aware of it, giving Sympathy to all that is base in others, and thus strengthening and increasing their baseness: at the same time we are shutting ourselves into habits of hard and narrow thinking and living.
Virtue goes out of us.—This greater office of Sympathy, this power to see, to elevate and to sustain, must not be lost sight of when it is the sorrow, anxiety, or suffering of another which calls it forth. We must see the calamity as the sufferer sees it, feel it as he feels it, if in less degree; we must suffer, also, or we have nothing to give. It was said of our Lord that ‘virtue went out of Him’ when He healed; and it is only as virtue—that is, our manhood, our strength, our life—goes out of us, that we have power to help and heal.
A Spurious Sympathy.—There is a spurious sympathy which is very popular with those who give and those who take; indeed, it is a bid for popularity. The sympathiser sees, but does not see deep enough. He sees that the egotism of the sufferer may be comforted in much the same way as an unwise nurse will comfort a child who has knocked his head against the table. ‘Naughty table!’ says nurse, and whips the table. Just so does the would-be sympathiser reproach the cause of suffering and enfeeble the sufferer by weak pity, leading him to pity himself. Self-pity is perhaps the last misfortune that can fall upon any man; and it is a degradation of sympathy when it goes to make the sufferer aware of himself, and not to raise him out of himself. The hardness which attempts to brace him without sharing his suffering is hardly worse than this spurious sympathy; and it does less harm, because the false ring of it is more easily discerned.
Tact.—‘Tact’ is almost another form of the word sympathy; both words employ the sense of touch to figure our perception of one another. Tact perceives where a word will grate, where a gesture would irritate, where words of sympathy are obtrusive, where a smile and a kindly look are better than a spoken word. Tact is commonly the result of good breeding; but the truest tact is an expression of sympathy which perceives what is going on in another mind. Perhaps, to tact belong the lesser things of Sympathy, the active interest of co-operation in the pursuits and hobbies of the people we live with, the passive interest of a ready ear. An attentive and deferential listener performs some of the highest offices of Sympathy; he raises and sustains the person to whom he listens, increases the self-respect of him who has done something, or seen something, or suffered something, which he wishes to tell. This is true service, because we all, ‘even the youngest,’ think too little of ourselves; and for that reason have not the courage of that which is possible to us.
Dæmons attending this Lord of Virtue.—We cannot detail all the offices of Sympathy, but must consider a few of the Dæmons attending this Lord of Virtue. Chief of these, and entirely fatal, is the self-occupation born of egotism. He whose eye is fixed upon himself, his rights and his needs, his desires and his requirements, his powers or his weaknesses, his successes or his failures, his worth or his unworthiness, has no more room for sympathy within him than a full goblet has for wine. The passive manifestation of egotism is Indifference; among its active forms are credulous and solicitous Vanity, Dislike, Antipathy.