Sources: As A Matter Of Course
SYMPATHY, in its best sense, is the ability to take another's point
of view. Not to mourn because he mourns; not to feel injured because
he feels injured. There are times when we cannot agree with a friend
in the necessity for mourning or feeling injured; but we can
understand the cause of his disturbance, and see clearly that his
suffering is quite reasonable, _from his own point of view_. One
cannot blame a man for being color-blind; but by thoroughly
understanding and sympathizing with the fact that red _must_ be green
as he sees it, one can help him to bring his mental retina to a more
normal state, until every color is taken at its proper value.
This broader sort of sympathy enables us to serve others much more
If we feel at one with a man who is suffering from a supposed injury
which may be entirely his own fault, we are doing all in our power
to confirm him in his mistake, and his impression of martyrdom is
increased and protracted in proportion. But if, with a genuine
comprehension of his point of view, however unreal it may be in
itself, we do our best to see his trouble in an unprejudiced light,
that is sympathy indeed; for our real sympathy is with the man
himself, cleared from his selfish fog. What is called our sympathy
with his point of view is more a matter of understanding. The
sympathy which takes the man for all in all, and includes the
comprehension of his prejudices, will enable us to hold our tongues
with regard to his prejudiced view until he sees for himself or
comes to us for advice.
It is interesting to notice how this sympathy with another enables
us to understand and forgive one from whom we have received an
injury. His point of view taken, his animosity against us seems to
follow as a matter of course; then no time or force need be wasted
Again, you cannot blame a man for being blind, even though his
blindness may be absolutely and entirely selfish, and you the
sufferer in consequence.
It often follows that the endeavor to get a clear understanding of
another's view brings to notice many mistaken ideas of our own, and
thus enables us to gain a better standpoint It certainly helps us to
enduring patience; whereas a positive refusal to regard the
prejudices of another is rasping to our own nerves, and helps to fix
him in whatever contraction may have possessed him.
There can be no doubt that this open sympathy is one of the better
phases of our human intercourse most to be desired. It requires a
clear head and a warm heart to understand the prejudices of a friend
or an enemy, and to sympathize with his capabilities enough to help
him to clearer mental vision.
Often, to be sure, there are two points of view, both equally true.
But they generally converge into one, and that one is more easily
found through not disputing our own with another's. Through sympathy
with him we are enabled to see the right on both sides, and reach
the central point.
It is singular that it takes us so long to recognize this breadth of
sympathy and practise it. Its practice would relieve us of an
immense amount of unnecessary nerve-strain. But the nerve-relief is
the mere beginning of gain to come. It steadily opens a clearer
knowledge and a heartier appreciation of human nature. We see in
individuals traits of character, good and bad, that we never could
have recognized whilst blinded by our own personal prejudices. By
becoming alive to various little sensitive spots in others, we are
enabled to avoid them, and save an endless amount of petty suffering
which might increase to suffering that was really severe.
One good illustration of this want of sympathy, in a small way, is
the waiting-room of a well-known nerve-doctor. The room is in such a
state of confusion, it is such a mixture of colors and forms, that
it would be fatiguing even for a person in tolerable health to stay
there for an hour. Yet the doctor keeps his sensitive, nervously
excited patients sitting in this heterogeneous mass of discordant
objects hour after hour. Surely it is no psychological subtlety of
insight that gives a man of this type his name and fame: it must be
the feeding and resting process alone; for a man of sensitive
sympathy would study to save his patients by taking their point of
view, as well as to bring them to a better physical state through
nourishment and rest
The ability to take a nervous sufferer's point of view is greatly
needed. There can be no doubt that with that effort on the part of
friends and relatives, many cases of severe nervous prostration
might be saved, certainly much nervous suffering could be prevented.
A woman who is suffering from a nervous conscience writes a note
which shows that she is worrying over this or that supposed mistake,
or as to what your attitude is towards her. A prompt, kind, and
direct answer will save her at once from further nervous suffering
of that sort. To keep an anxious person, whether he be sick or well,
watching the mails, is a want of sympathy which is also shown in
many other ways, unimportant, perhaps, to us, but important if we
are broad enough to take the other's point of view.
There are many foolish little troubles from which men and women
suffer that come only from tired nerves. A wise patience with such
anxieties will help greatly towards removing their cause. A wise
patience is not indulgence. An elaborate nervous letter of great
length is better answered by a short but very kind note.
The sympathy which enables us to understand the point of view of
tired nerves gives us the power to be lovingly brief in our response
to them, and at the same time more satisfying than if we responded
Most of us take human nature as a great whole, and judge individuals
from our idea in general. Or, worse, we judge it all from our own
personal prejudices. There is a grossness about this which we wonder
at not having seen before, when we compare the finer sensitiveness
which is surely developed by the steady effort to understand
another's point of view. We know a whole more perfectly as a whole
if we have a distinct knowledge of the component parts. We can only
understand human nature en masse through a daily clearer knowledge
of and sympathy with its individuals. Every one of us knows the
happiness of having at least one friend whom he is perfectly sure
will neither undervalue him nor give him undeserved praise, and
whose friendship and help he can count upon, no matter how great a
wrong he has done, as securely as he could count upon his loving
thought and attention in physical illness. Surely it is possible for
each of us to approach such friendship in our feeling and attitude
towards every one who comes in touch with us.
It is comparatively easy to think of this open sympathy, or even
practise it in big ways; it is in the little matters of everyday
life that the difficulty arises. Of course the big ways count for
less if they come through a brain clogged with little prejudices,
although to some extent one must help the other.
It cannot be that a man has a real open sympathy who limits it to
his own family and friends; indeed, the very limit would make the
open sympathy impossible. One is just as far from a clear
comprehension of human nature when he limits himself by his
prejudices for his immediate relatives as when he makes himself
alone the boundary.
Once having gained even the beginning of this broader sympathy with
others, there follows the pleasure of freedom from antagonisms,
keener delight in understanding others, individually and
collectively, and greater ability to serve others; and all these
must give an impetus which takes us steadily on to greater freedom,
to clearer understanding, and to more power to serve and to be
Others have many experiences which we have never even touched upon.
In that case, our ability to understand is necessarily limited. The
only thing to do is to acknowledge that we cannot see the point of
view, that we have no experience to start from, and to wait with an
open mind until we are able to understand.
Curiously enough, it is precisely these persons of limited
experience who are most prone to prejudice. I have heard a man
assert with emphasis that it was every one's _duty_ to be happy, who
had apparently not a single thing in life to interfere with his own
happiness. The duty may be clear enough, but he certainly was not in
a position to recognize its difficulty. And just in proportion with
his inability to take another's point of view in such difficulty did
he miss his power to lead others to this agreeable duty.
There are, of course, innumerable things, little and big, which we
shall be enabled to give to others and to receive from others as the
true sympathy grows.
The common-sense of it all appeals to us forcibly.
Who wants to carry about a mass of personal prejudices when he can
replace them by the warm, healthy feeling of sympathetic friendship?
Who wants his nerves to be steadily irritated by various forms of
intolerance when, by understanding the other's point of view, he can
replace these by better forms of patience?
This lower relief is little compared with the higher power gained,
but it is the first step up, and the steps beyond go ever upward.
Human nature is worth knowing and worth loving, and it can never be
known or loved without open sympathy.
Why, we ourselves are human nature!
Many of us would be glad to give sympathy to others, especially in
little ways, but we do not know how to go to work about it; we seem
always to be doing the wrong thing, when our desire is to do the
right. This comes, of course, from the same inability to take the
other's point of view; and the ability is gained as we are quiet and
watch for it.
Practice, here as in everything else, is what helps. And the object
is well worth working for.