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Human Sympathy

Categories: Uncategorized
Sources: 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 ha
e 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,

sick body.

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

may appear.

Personal Independence

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

personal independence.

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.

John says:--

"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

"independent" people.

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

entirely overcome.

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.