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Source: The Freedom Of Life
A NURSE who had been only a few weeks in the hospital
training-school, once saw--from her seat at the dinner-table--a man
brought into the house who was suffering intensely from a very
severe accident. The young woman started up to be of what service
she could, and when she returned to the table, had lost her appetite
entirely, because of her sympathy for the suffering man. She had
hardly begun her dinner, and would have gone without it if it had
not been for a sharp reprimand from the superintendent.
"If you really sympathize with that man," she said, "you will eat
your dinner to get strength to take care of him. Here is a man who
will need constant, steady, _healthy_ attention for some days to
come,--and special care all this afternoon and night, and it will be
your duty to look out for him. Your 'sympathy' is already pulling
you down and taking away your strength, and you are doing what you
can to lose more strength by refusing to eat your dinner. Such
sympathy as that is poor stuff; I call it weak sentimentality."
The reprimand was purposely sharp, and, by arousing the anger and
indignation of the nurse, it served as a counter-irritant which
restored her appetite. After her anger had subsided, she thanked the
superintendent with all her heart, and from that day she began to
learn the difference between true and false sympathy. It took her
some time, however, to get thoroughly established in the habit of
healthy sympathy. The tendency to unwholesome sympathy was part of
her natural inheritance, along with many other evil tendencies which
frequently have to be overcome before a person with a very sensitive
nervous system can find his own true strength. But as she watched
the useless suffering which resulted in all cases in which people
allowed themselves to be weakened by the pain of others, she learned
to understand more and more intelligently the practice of wholesome
sympathy, and worked until it had become her second nature.
Especially did she do this after having proved many times, by
practical experience, the strength which comes through the power of
wholesome sympathy to those in pain.
Unwholesome sympathy incapacitates one for serving others, whether
the need be physical, mental, or moral. Wholesome sympathy not only
gives us power to serve, but clears our understanding; and, because
of our growing ability to appreciate rightly the point of view of
other people, our service can be more and more intelligent.
In contrast to this unwholesome sympathy, which is the cause of more
trouble in the world than people generally suppose, is the
unwholesome lack of sympathy, or hardening process, which is
deliberately cultivated by many people, and which another story will
serve to illustrate.
A poor negro was once brought to the hospital very ill; he had
suffered so keenly in the process of getting there that the
resulting weakness, together with the intense fright at the idea of
being in a hospital, which is so common to many of his class, added
to the effects of his disease itself, were too much for him, and he
died before he had been in bed fifteen minutes. The nurse in charge
looked at him and said, in a cold, steady tone:--
"It was hardly worth while to make up the bed."
She had hardened herself because she could not endure the suffering
of unwholesome sympathy, and yet "must do her work." No one had
taught her the freedom and power of true sympathy. Her finer senses
were dulled and atrophied,--she did not know the difference between
one human soul and another. She only knew that this was a case of
typhoid fever, that a case of pneumonia, and another a case of
delirium tremens. They were all one to her, so far as the human
beings went. She knew the diagnosis and the care of the physical
disease,--and that was all. She did the material work very well, but
she must have brought torture to the sensitive mind in many a poor,
Another form of false sympathy is what may be called professional
sympathy. Some people never find that out, but admire and get
comfort from the professional sympathy of a doctor or a nurse, or
any other person whose profession it is to care for those who are
suffering. It takes a keen perception or a quick emergency to bring
out the false ring of professional sympathy. But the hardening
process that goes on in the professional sympathizer is even greater
than in the case of those who do not put on a sympathetic veneer. It
seems as if there must be great tension in the more delicate parts
of the nervous system in people who have hardened themselves, with
or without the veneer,--akin to what there would be in the muscles
if a man went about his work with both fists tightly clenched all
day, and slept with them clenched all night. If that tension of hard
indifference could be reached and relaxed, the result would probably
be a nervous collapse, before true, wholesome habits could be
established. but unfortunately it often becomes so rigid that a
healthy relaxation is out of the question. Professional sympathy is
of the same quality as the selfish sympathy which we see constantly
about us in men or women who sympathize because the emotion attracts
admiration and wins the favor of others.
When people sympathize in their selfishness instead of sympathizing
in their efforts to get free, the force of selfishness is increased,
and the world is kept down to a lower standard by just so much.
A thief, for instance, fails in a well-planned attempt to get a
large sum of money, and confides his attempt and failure to a
brother thief, who expresses admiration for the sneaking keenness of
the plan, and hearty sympathy in the regret for his failure. The
first thief immediately pronounces the second thief "a good fellow."
But, at the same time, if either of these apparently friendly
thieves could get more money by cheating the other the next day he
would not hesitate to do so.
To be truly sympathetic, we should be able so to identify ourselves
with the interests of others that we can have a thorough
appreciation of their point of view, and can understand their lives
clearly, as they appear to themselves; but this we can never do if
we are immersed in the fog,--either of their personal selfishness or
our own. By understanding others clearly, we can talk in ways that
are, and seem to them, rational, and gradually lead them to a higher
If a woman is in the depths of despair because a dress does not fit,
I should not help her by telling her the truth about her character,
and lecturing her upon her folly in wasting grief upon trifles, when
there are so many serious troubles in the world. From her point of
view, the fact that her dress does not fit _is_ a grief. But if I
keep quiet, and let her see that I understand her disappointment,
and at the same time hold my own standard, she will be led much more
easily and more truly to see for herself the smallness of her
attitude. First, perhaps, she will be proud that she has learned not
to worry about such a little thing as a new dress; and, if so, I
must remember her point of view, and be willing that she should be
proud. Then, perhaps, she will come to wonder how she ever could
have wasted anxiety on a dress or a hat, and later she may perhaps
forget that she ever did.
It is like leading a child. We give loving sympathy to a child when
it breaks its doll, although we know there is nothing real to grieve
about There is something for the child to grieve about, something
very real _to her;_ but we can only sympathize helpfully with her
point of view by keeping ourselves clearly in the light of our own
more mature point of view.
From the top of a mountain you can see into the valley round
about,--your horizon is very broad, and you can distinguish the
details that it encompasses; but, from the valley, you cannot see
the top of the mountain, and your horizon is limited.
This illustrates truly the breadth and power of wholesome human
sympathy. With a real love for human nature, if a man has a clear,
high standard of his own,--a standard which he does not attribute to
his own intelligence--his understanding of the lower standards of
other men will also be very clear, and he will take all sorts and
conditions of men into the region within the horizon of his mind.
Not only that, but he will recognize the fact When the standard of
another man is higher than his own, and will be ready to ascend at
once when he becomes aware of a higher point of view. On the other
hand, when selfishness is sympathizing with selfishness, there is no
ascent possible, but only the one little low place limited by the
personal, selfish interests of those concerned.
Nobody else's trouble seems worth considering to those who are
immersed in their own, or in their selfish sympathy with a friend
whom they have chosen to champion. This is especially felt among
conventional people, when something happens which disturbs their
external habits and standards of life. Sympathy is at once thrown
out on the side of conventionality, without any rational inquiry as
to the real rights of the case. Selfish respectability is most
unwholesome in its unhealthy sympathy with selfish respectability.
The wholesome sympathy of living human hearts sympathizes first with
what is wholesome,--especially in those who suffer,--whether it be
wholesomeness of soul or body; and true sympathy often knows and
recognizes that wholesomeness better than the sufferer himself. Only
in a secondary way, and as a means to a higher end, does it
sympathize with the painful circumstances or conditions. By keeping
our sympathies steadily fixed on the health of a brother or friend,
when he is immersed in and overcome by his own pain, we may show him
the way out of his pain more truly and more quickly. By keeping our
sympathies fixed on the health of a friend's soul, we may lead him
out of selfishness which otherwise might gradually destroy him. In
both cases our loving care should be truly felt,--and felt as real
understanding of the pain or grief suffered in the steps by the way,
with an intelligent sense of their true relation to the best
interests of the sufferer himself Such wholesome sympathy is alert
in all its perceptions to appreciate different. points of view, and
takes care to speak only in language which is intelligible, and
therefore useful. It is full of loving patience, and never forces or
persuades, but waits and watches to give help at the right time and
in the right place. It is more often helpful with silence than with
words. It stimulates one to imagine what friendship might be if it
were alive and wholesome to the very core. For, in such friendship
as this, a true friend to one man has the capacity of being a true
friend to all men, and one who has a thoroughly wholesome sympathy
for one human being will have it for all. His general attitude must
always be the same--modified only by the relative distance which
comes from variety in temperaments.
In order to sympathize with the best possibilities in others, our
own standards must be high and clear, and we must be steadily true
to them. Such sympathy is freedom itself,--it is warm and
glowing,--while the sympathy which adds its weight to the pain or
selfishness of others can really be only bondage, however good it
IN proportion as every organ of the human body is free to perform
its own functions, unimpeded by any other, the body is perfectly
healthy and vigorous; and, in proportion as every organ of the body
is receiving its proper support from every other, the body as a
whole is vigorous, and in the full use of its powers.
These are two self-evident axioms, and, if we think of them quietly
for a little while, they will lead us to a clear realization of true
The lungs cannot do the work of the heart, but must do their own
work, independently and freely; and yet, if the lungs should
suddenly say to themselves:
"This is all nonsense,--our depending upon the heart in this way; we
must be independent! It is weak to depend upon the other organs of
the body!" And if they should repel the blood which the heart pumped
into them, with the idea that they could manage the body by
themselves, and were not going to be weakly dependent upon the
heart, the stomach, or any other organ,--if the lungs should insist
upon taking this independent stand, they would very soon stop
breathing, the heart would stop beating, the stomach would stop
digesting, and the body would die. Or, suppose that the heart should
refuse to supply the lungs with the blood necessary to provide
oxygen; the same fatal result would of course follow. Or, even let
us imagine all the organs of the body agreeing that it is weak to be
dependent, and asserting their independence of each other. At the
very instant that such an agreement was carried into effect, the
body would perish.
Then, on the other hand,--to reverse the illustration,--if the lungs
should feel that they could help the heart's work by attending to
the circulation of the blood, if the heart should insist that it
could inhale and exhale better than the lungs, and should neglect
its own work in order to advise and assist the lungs in the
breathing, the machinery of the body would be in sad confusion for a
time, and would very soon cease altogether.
This imaginary want of real independence in the working of the
different organs of the body can be illustrated by the actual action
of the muscles. How often we see a man working with his mouth while
writing, when he should be only using his hands; or, working
uselessly with his left hand, when what he has to do only needs the
right! How often we see people trying to listen with their arms and
shoulders! Such illustrations might be multiplied indefinitely, and,
in all cases, the false sympathy of contraction in the parts of the
body which are not needed for the work in hand comes from a wrong
dependence,--from the fact that the pats of the body that are not
needed, are officiously dependent upon those that are properly
active, instead of minding their own affairs and saving energy for
their own work.
The wholesome working of the human organism, is so perfect in its
analogy to the healthy relations of members of a community, that no
reader should pass it by without very careful thought.
"I am not going to be dependent upon any man. I am going to live my
own life, in my own way, as I expect other men to live theirs. If
they will leave me alone, I will leave them alone," and John
flatters himself that he is asserting his own strength of
personality, that he is emphasizing his individuality. The truth is
that John is warping himself every day by his weak dependence upon
his own prejudices. He is unwilling to look fairly at another main's
opinion for fear of being dependent upon it. He is not only warping
himself by his "independence," which is puffed up with the false
appearance of strength, but he is robbing his fellow-men; for he
cannot refuse to receive from others without putting it out of his
own power to give to others. Real giving and receiving must be
reciprocal in spirit, and absolutely dependent upon each other.
It is a curious and a sad study to watch the growing slavery of such
James, on the other hand, thinks he cannot do anything without
asking another man's advice or getting another man's help; sometimes
it is always the same man, sometimes it is one of twenty different
men. And so, James is steadily losing the power of looking life in
the face, and of judging for himself whether or not to take the
advice of others from a rational principle, and of his own free
will, and he is gradually becoming a parasite,--an animal which
finally loses all its organs from lack of use, so that only its
stomach remains,--and has, of course, no intelligence at all. The
examples of such men as James are much more numerous than might be
supposed. We seldom see them in such flabby dependence upon the will
of an individual as would make them conspicuous; but they are about
us every day, and in large numbers, in their weak dependence upon
public opinion,--their bondage to the desire that other men should
think well of them. The human parasites that are daily feeding on
social recognition are unconsciously in the process of losing their
individuality and their intelligence; and it would be a sad surprise
to them if they could see themselves clearly as they really are.
Public opinion is a necessary and true protection to the world as it
is, because if it were not for public opinion, many men and women
would dare to be more wicked than they are. But that is no reason
why intelligent men should order their lives on certain lines just
because their neighbors do,--just because it is the custom. If the
custom is a good custom, it can be followed intelligently, and
because we recognize it as good, but it should not be followed only
because our neighbors follow it. Then, if our neighbors follow the
custom for the same intelligent reason, it will bring us and them
into free and happy sympathy.
Neither should a man hesitate to do right, positively and
fearlessly, in the face of the public assertion that he is doing
wrong. He should, of course, look himself over many times to be sure
that he is doing right, according to his own best light, and he
should be willing to change his course of action just as fearlessly
if he finds he has made a mistake; but, having once decided, he will
respect public opinion much more truly by acting quietly against it
with an open mind, than he would if he refused to do right, because
he was afraid of what others would think of him. To defy carelessly
the opinion of others is false independence, and has in it the
elements of fear, however fearless it may seem; but to respectfully
ignore it for the sake of what is true, and good, and useful, is
sure to enlarge the public heart and to help, it eventually to a
clearer charity. Individual dependence and individual independence
are absolutely necessary to a well-adjusted balance. It is just as
necessary to the individual men of a community as to the individual
organs of the body.
It is not uncommon for a person to say:--
"I must give up So-and-so; I must not see so much of him,--I am
getting so dependent upon him."
If the apparent dependence on a friend is due to the fact that he
has valuable principles to teach which may take time to learn, but
which lead in the end to greater freedom, then to give up such
companionship, out of regard for the criticism of others would, of
course, be weakness and folly itself. It is often our lot to incur
the severest blame for the very weaknesses which we have most
Many people will say:--
"I should rather be independently wrong than dependently right," and
others will admire them for the assertion. But the truth is, that
whenever one is wrong, one is necessarily dependent, either upon man
or devil; but it is impossible to be dependently right, excepting
for the comparatively short time that we may need for a definite,
useful purpose. If a man is right in his mental and moral attitude
merely because his friend is right, and not because he wants the
right himself, it will only be a matter of time before his prop is
taken away, and he will fall back into his own moral weakness. Of
course, a man can begin to be right because his friend is
right;--but it is because there is something in him which responds
to the good in his friend. Strong men are true to their friendships
and convictions, in spite of appearances and the clamor of their
True independence is never afraid of appearing dependent, and true
dependence leads always to the most perfect independence.
We cannot, really enjoy our own freedom without the growing desire
and power to help other people to theirs. Our own love of
independence will bring with it an equal love for the independence
of our neighbor; and our own love of true dependence--that is, of
receiving wise help from any one through whom it may be sent--will
give us an equal love for giving help wherever it will be welcome.
Our respect for our own independence will make it impossible that we
should insist upon trying to give help to others where it is not
wanted; and our own respect for true dependence will give us a
loving charity, a true respect for those who are necessarily and
temporarily dependent, and teach us to help them to their true
We should learn to keep a margin of reserve for ourselves, and to
give the same margin to others. Not to come too near, but to be far
enough away from every one to give us a true perspective. There is a
sort of familiarity that arises sometimes between friends, or even
mere acquaintances, which closes the door to true friendship or to
real acquaintance. It does not bring people near to one another, but
keeps them apart. It is as if men thought that they could be better
friends by bumping their heads together.
Our freedom comes in realizing that all the energy of life should
come primarily from a love of principles and not of persons,
excepting as persons relate to principles. If one man finds another
living on principles that are higher than his own, it means strength
and freedom for him to cling to his friend until he has learned to
understand and live on those principles himself. Then if he finds
his own power for usefulness and his own enjoyment of life increased
by his friendship, it would indeed be weak of him to refuse such
companionship from fear of being dependent. The surest and strongest
basis of freedom in friendship is a common devotion to the same
fundamental principles of life; and this insures reciprocal
usefulness as well as personal independence. We must remember that
the very worst and weakest dependence is not a dependence upon
persons, but upon a sin,--whether the sin be fear of public opinion
or some other more or less serious form of bondage.
The only true independence is in obedience to law, and if, to gain
the habit of such obedience, we need a helping hand, it is truly
independent for us to take it.
_We all came into the world alone, and we must go out of the world
alone, and yet we are exquisitely and beautifully dependent upon one
A great German philosopher has said that there should be as much
space between the atoms of the body, in relation to its size, as
there is between the stars in relation to the size of the
universe,--and yet every star is dependent upon every other
star,--as every atom in the body is dependent upon every other atom
for its true life and action. This principle of balance in the
macrocosm and the microcosm is equally applicable to any community
of people, whether large or small. The quiet study and appreciation
of it will enable us to realize the strength of free dependence and
dependent freedom in the relation of persons to one another. The
more truly we can help one another in freedom toward the dependence
upon law, which is the axis of the universe, the more wholesome and
perfect will be all our human relations.
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