The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 8. Sympathy
16 min read
16 min read
Sympathy, it may be said, is an accident of temperament, and cannot be raised to the rank of a duty. There are people who cannot help being distressed by the troubles of their relatives, their friends, their neighbours, and even by the troubles of strangers; and everybody’s happiness makes them, for a time at least, the happier. They are saddened by the sight of a funeral, though they may not know the dead man’s name, and they feel a thrill of sympathetic delight whenever they see a line of wedding carriages. On the other hand, there are people who are naturally cold, they cannot help it; by no energy of moral effort can they ” rejoice with them that rejoice ” or “weep with them that weep.” Sympathy cannot be commanded by volition, and, therefore, it cannot be made a matter of moral obligation.
But the same objection might be urged with almost equal force against the obligation of many other duties. There is no doubt a felicity of natural constitution which makes it easy to practise many virtues; and there are some men who are born with a constitution which makes many virtues very difficult. Immense as is the province of Free Will, it almost seems as if the foundations of character were laid for us by other hands than our own.
The moral life is largely affected by the fineness of the texture of brain and nerve, by the vigour of the pulse, by the soundness of the lungs, by the action of many of the most obscure physical forces. All this is true, and yet we cannot treat Morals as merely a branch of Physiology.
A man may be so made that it is very hard for him to overcome sluggishness. He may find his happiness in a tranquillity which approaches sleep, as others find theirs in climbing mountains, in hunting, in shooting, or in the vigorous activity of the intellect. His ideal Heaven is the Nirvana of Buddhism. But except in rare cases, here and there. Indolence is not a physical infirmity but a vice. Intemperance in eating, in drinking, or in other forms of sensual indulgence, may be largely the result of hereditary tendencies. But Temperance is a duty, and the cases are very rare in which it is right or safe to regard Intemperance as nothing more than a disease.
It may be answered that these illustrations are hardly to the point. A man may force himself to his work however much he dislikes it; and a man may abstain from actual physical excess however much he may desire it. But Sympathy is not to be compelled.
Granted. Take one or two other cases. Some children are naturally docile and affectionate; others seem naturally sullen, ungracious, and wayward; but to be obedient and loving are among the duties of children; and disobedience, wilfulness, and a want of affection for parents and for brothers and sisters are very grave faults. Some men have a natural disposition so soft and kindly that to live with them is like living under southern skies; others have a temper — they seem to have been born with it — which is worse than a perpetual east wind. The kindliness of the one man is not created by volition; and volition cannot dispel the gloom, the discontent, the impatience of the other. And yet good temper is not a mere fortunate accident like robust strength or personal beauty, it is a virtue; and a bad temper is not a mere calamity like a club-foot or a hare-lip, it is a vice. And so, while some men, because of their natural temperament, find it easier than others to ” rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep,” Sympathy has its place among the great moral virtues.
I say that Sympathy has its place among the great moral virtues. There is nothing about it in the Ten Commandments, but in the Christian code it stands side by side with justice, truthfulness, temperance, industry, and all other moral duties. It is not merely a gracious ornament of character. It is as essential a part of the Christian life as prayer and worship, or as faith in the existence of God, in judgment to come, in the divinity of Christ, and in His death for the sins of the world. It is necessary to insist on this point.
Sympathy is a plain, commonplace, universal duty, not a “counsel of perfection.” It is our duty to tell the truth to every man; all systems of morality insist on it; but Christian morality insists that it is our duty to rejoice with every man in his joy. It is our duty to be honest to every man; the obligations of honesty were enforced by “the scribes and the Pharisees;” but Christ said, “except your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Christian morality requires us not only to be honest to every man, but to feel sorrow for him in all his sorrow.
The obligation must not be so qualified and limited as to be practically suppressed. There are people with whom it is very easy to sympathise in their gladness and their grief. But it is our duty to be honest and to tell the truth to all kinds of people, and the obligations of Sympathy are equally general. It would not do to say: “I tell the truth to people I like and tell lies to other men,” or, “I am honest to my friends and cheat strangers; ” nor will it do to say, “I sympathise with people I care for, and to the sorrow and happiness of the rest of the world I am indifferent.” The law is a universal one: “Rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
This duty does not rest merely on the authority of the apostle Paul, who has stated it with such perfect felicity in his Epistle to the Romans. If critical editors of the New Testament declared that the fifteenth verse of the twelfth chapter of that Epistle must be omitted, the obligations of Sympathy would not be at all impaired. The moral duties of the Christian life do not appear or vanish with the “readings” which critical editors sanction or reject. They have foundations which are not disturbed by the accidental errors of copyists. They are not rooted in “texts,” but in the very substance of the revelation of Christ.
This particular precept is only one application of the great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” To sympathise with others in their misery and their joy is to obey the great central law of Christian conduct: ” Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. … Not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.” If we perfectly fulfil these obligations, we shall rejoice in the health, the strength, the honour, the success of other men as heartily as in our own, and we shall be grieved by whatever grieves them. The Christian duty of sympathy arises from the discovery which has come to us through Christ of the intimacy of our relations to all mankind. An isolated, selfish life is impossible to us. All men are dear to the heart of God, and therefore they must be dear to us. We and they have one Father in heaven; we and they are brothers. If we have a brotherly spirit, we shall rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
There is one reason for obeying this law which deserves serious consideration. We owe sympathy to other men because it is one of the principal and most effective means of contributing to their moral perfection; and because, by withholding it, we inflict upon them grave moral injury. We cannot all be preachers, missionaries, visitors of the poor, or public philanthropists, and when we see the immense amount of moral evil that is in the world, we may be very unhappy because we can do so little to diminish it. And the moral evil which troubles a fine nature is not merely the profligacy, or the brutality, or the flagrant dishonesty which removes men from decent and reputable society. There is moral evil of another kind, with which all of us are frequently in close contact. In men and women who have many admirable qualities, who are truthful, upright, and temperate, who discharge with exemplary fidelity many private and many public duties, there are grave defects of temper and spirit. They are hard, wilful, impatient; they are guilty of reckless self-assertion; they are suspicious, contemptuous, ungenerous; they remind one of noble trees that require warmth and sunshine, but which have been discouraged by gloomy skies, and chilled, tormented by cold harsh winds. If they had only had kindly influences about them, their growth would have been lovely and beautiful. Some of us may not be able to do much to recover those who are morally lost, but we may all do something to lessen the hardness and to add to the moral grace of those with whom we live. Genuine human sympathy is a moral benefit to a man; when the sympathy has a Christian quality and is the result of our union with Christ, it is a channel of Divine grace.
Sympathise with a man in his prosperity and you will do very much to protect him from the moral perils to which his prosperity exposes him. A man gets rich and he sees that people regard him with envy. They think that he has had better fortune than he deserves. He has not worked harder than they have worked; he is no cleverer than they are; and they say that his success is the result of an accident, and is no credit to him. Or, worse still, they make his success a ground for depreciating his character. They hint that he has been grasping; that he has gone very near the bounds of honest trading, and they are not quite sure that he has always kept within them. If all his business transactions had been quite legitimate, they think that he would not have got rich so ‘rapidly.
Now if you know that a man is carrying on his business on dishonourable principles — if he lies; if he is tyrannical; if he takes an unfair advantage of people who happen to come into his power; then, whether he is getting richer or poorer, you are bound to refuse him your moral approval. He should be no friend of yours; you have no right to speak well of him, whether he is in danger of bankruptcy, or whether he has made his way to great wealth. But if you begin to have hard thoughts of him when he has achieved great success; if he feels that you, an old friend, have no honest delight in his prosperity, you are not only unjust to him, you may do him serious moral harm. If you are cold to him because he has become richer than you are, he will be cold to you because you are poorer than he is. If you think of his wealth with discontent, he will think of it with exaggerated complacency. If you regard his success, which is a great matter to him, with indifference, do not be surprised if he regards, with similar indifference, your troubles and losses which are great matters to you.
There is always danger that when a man gets rich he will cease to have a brotherly heart towards other men; it is the duty of his old friends to do what they can to save him from that danger — not by preaching to him, unless they are very sure that they can preach well— but by rejoicing with him in his riches. Some good people have it on their conscience to say ” faithful things ” — a euphemism for ” disagreeable things ” — to any young relative or acquaintance of theirs that becomes very prosperous. They think themselves bound to warn him against the pride, ostentation, extravagance, social ambition and neglect of religious duty into which he is likely to be betrayed. Well, if they begin by rejoicing with him in his wealth, and rejoicing very heartily, they may do him some good; but if they have no genuine delight in his good fortune, they are certain to do harm. Let his old friends keep a brotherly spirit towards him and it will be easier for him to keep a brotherly spirit towards them; and their sympathy will help to keep him modest and generous.
The same law holds in relation to success of other kinds. A man by his ability, his public zeal, and perhaps by favouring circumstances, rises rapidly to a position of influence and honour — too rapidly, perhaps, for his moral safety. If other men rejoice with him in his success he may be kept right; but depreciate his power — say that his rise is owing to chance rather than merit — and you will provoke him to self-assertion. Envy him and you will make him contemptuous. Sneer at his infirmities, which might have passed without notice in the shade, but which become very apparent in the sunlight, and he will form the habit of regarding with scorn the men who are so mean and so shallow that they cannot recognise great qualities and great services because they are associated with some defects. Be jealous of him and he will be domineering. Be selfishly indifferent to his triumph and he will selfishly enjoy it.
But write him a hearty letter when he is appointed to a distinguished position — grasp his hand with warm congratulation when he has made an able speech or shown in some administrative work conspicuous ability — if he is praised by those whose praise is an exceptional distinction let him know that his delight is not greater than yours, and you will keep his temper sweet, and will prevent him from being inflated by his success. His honours will seem less exclusively his own if you make him feel that they have increased your happiness; it will seem as if you shared them with him, as if they were yours as well as his, and you will do your part to save him from vanity and conceit.
When trouble comes upon men your sympathy may lessen the bitterness of their grief, and may prevent them from yielding to a hard resentment against God and against the whole order of the world. It is in loneliness that the heart becomes wild and savage, and breaks out into revolt against heaven and earth. We keep our moral sanity by contact with the healthy moral life of other men.
You may not be able to say a word to lessen the magnitude of your friend’s trouble. The more you think of it the more terrible it may seem. Not an alleviating circumstance may be discoverable. No matter; let the broken heart feel that you share the sorrow, and this will give some relief.
There is a mystery in the power of sympathy that seems related to one of the central mysteries of the universe. By sympathy we can lessen the bitterness of other men’s sorrows; by sympathy we can even lessen the shame and anguish of other men’s sins. In some way — we cannot tell how — we can bear their griefs, and even bear their guilt. He who is the Son of Man as well as the Son of God, Christ Jesus, the Brother of us all, has illustrated that law in the most tragic and sublime form; the sorrows and the sins of the race came upon Him.
The great thing is to feel sympathy; but it is also a duty to let people know that you feel it. Never imagine that it will make no difference to them whether they know it or not. Give them credit for being brotherly. Take it for granted that they care for you as you care for them. Do not say, they will not miss me at the wedding, or the funeral, or the house-warming. If you take your heart with you, be sure that you will add to the joy of the festival or lessen the gloom of the grief.
You do not know how slight an expression of sympathy is a source of strength and relief. Go to your friend in his trouble, even if you can say nothing; write to him, if you can only tell him that you share his suffering. Ingenious attempts to explain to him that he is probably exaggerating the greatness of the calamity which has fallen upon him, and overlooking considerations which might lessen his distress, will probably produce resentment. He will feel that he knows more about it than you do, and that you are presumptuous, impertinent, sacrilegious, in your attempts to measure the exact limits of his trouble, and to determine what ought to be the limits of his grief. What he wants is not your ingenious philosophy, but just a touch of your heart.
Soon after I became a minister, and while I was still a very young man, a great loss fell on a family in my congregation. The husband died a year or two after marriage. I went to see the widow. Her anguish was of that silent, self-restrained sort which it is always most terrible to witness. There were no tears; there was no cry of complaint; not a word about the bright life which had been so suddenly darkened; not a word about the present agony or about the gloom and desolation of the years to come. Her grief was dumb. I was oppressed by it; I could say nothing. The sorrow seemed beyond the reach of comfort; and after sitting for a few minutes I rose in some agitation and went away without saying a word. After I had left the house, and when I had recovered self-possession, I felt humiliated and distressed that I had not spoken; I thought that perhaps it would have been better not to have gone at all. I do not feel so now. Sometimes the only consolation we can offer our friends is to let them know that we feel that their sorrow is too great for any consolation of ours.
Some people have what may be called the gift of sympathy, and a charming gift it is. Easily, naturally, without effort, they respond to all the changing circumstances and moods of those about them. They have tears for the sorrows of their friends and a flood of sunlight for their joys. They pass at once into the life of every one with whom they care to come into contact. They actually feel the grief or the joy that is present to their imagination. But for the high authority of M. Diderot, I should have supposed that this is the temperament that makes a man a great actor.
The gift is a lovely one. But, to use the old phrase, it is necessary to distinguish between the “gift ” and the “grace.” There is a certain luxurious enjoyment in receiving into one’s own life the brightness and the shadows that come from the joys and sorrows of other men. The response, so prompt, so gracious, to every appeal from without, may have no moral element in it. The sympathy with misfortune may be followed by no serious endeavour to lessen it; the sympathy with joy may be soon over, and may be followed in an hour by a sarcasm or a sneer. The sympathetic temperament is not always associated with a genuine devotion to the interests of other men.
If it is a duty to give sympathy, it is also a duty to receive it. The sullen or contemptuous rejection of it is a vice, and is a sign of the same unbrotherly spirit as the refusal to give it. It is the sign that a man has declined to accept his true relations to the race, and that he is isolated and absorbed in his own happiness or misery. By rejecting sympathy we do harm to the person who offers it, for we check the growth of a form of human perfection. It is a sin to discourage a man who wants to be truthful; it is also a sin to discourage a man who wants to show that he shares our trouble or our gladness. If we have any depth of nature we shall not be repelled because the form in which the sympathy is expressed may happen to be rough and ungracious, or even artificial. We ought to recognise the water of life even when it is brought us in the commonest of earthen vessels.
By rejecting it we wrong others, wiser and nobler than ourselves, to whom the man may be afraid to offer it, because we have refused to receive it. And we wrong ourselves, for we confirm our unbrotherly selfishness.
How are we to create a sympathetic spirit, if we are conscious that our natural temperament is unsympathetic? The question would be difficult to answer if the sympathetic spirit had really to be created. But it has only to be developed. It is in our heart somewhere, and would show itself if it had a fair chance. Perhaps our circumstances have been unfriendly to its natural growth, and we have never tried to cultivate it. It is curious to contrast the care and industry with which men cultivate their intellect, with their carelessness in the cultivation of moral perfection. No one supposes that intellectual vigour and keenness, and delicacy of discrimination, will come of themselves, and without discipline and painstaking; but many men seem to suppose that the corresponding qualities of the moral life may be left to take their chance. We insist that our sons and daughters shall follow many studies, not for the mere sake of acquiring knowledge, but for the sake of their disciplinary power. Very much of this knowledge is lost in a very few years after they have left school or college, but the studies have answered their purpose — the intellect has been awakened; it has been “broken in;” it has been made capable of persistent industry; its native force has been increased; its powers have been harmoniously developed. Even in mature manhood and womanhood we may find it necessary to continue some of our disciplinary studies to prevent our intellectual life from degenerating. But no such wise and considerate care is given to the cultivation of the moral life, and yet men are troubled by their moral imperfections.
It may, I think, be assumed that, with rare exceptions, no man’s environment has been favourable to the natural growth of all the virtues that should illustrate the Christian character. In some cases, the influences of a man’s home, and school, and early friendships have been friendly to watchfulness, courage, industry and the more robust qualities of the moral life; in others, to gentleness, kindliness, patience, and courtesy. But I imagine that most of us discover, when we reach manhood or womanhood, that the soil in which we have been planted, and the climate which has been about us from our childhood, have been unfavourable to some very necessary virtues, and that these need careful cultivation. We should be thankful for whatever good qualities have come to us apart from our own choice and effort, and should do our best to develop the rest.
The power of sympathy may be cultivated. We may, by a definite effort of will, overcome the miserable tendency to think only of ourselves and our own affairs. We may put ourselves in the way of being troubled by other men’s sorrows and gladdened by their joys. When we hear of a reverse of fortune which has come upon a friend, we may dwell upon it, and make it vivid and real to ourselves. We may think of all the details of the calamity; of the months of anxiety during which it has been anticipated; of the sleepless nights which our friend spent as the catastrophe came nearer; of the changes it has made in his whole position, and in all his prospects of the future; of what it must be for him to leave his pleasant home; to part with his pictures and books; to look at his garden for the last time; to feel that in future he will not be able to travel or to indulge in any of the recreations which have become almost necessary to his health and vigour; of his distress at having to take his girls from a school which is now much too expensive for his means, and at having to tell his boys that they must give up the hope of going to the university; of the anguish with which he anticipates what may come to them when he is dead, if he is unable to recover something of the wealth that he has lost; of the bitterness with which he thinks of the errors of judgment which may, perhaps, have led to the calamity — the rashness of some unfortunate speculation — the facility with which he granted large credits to men whom he ought never to have trusted. It is only by a deliberate effort to measure the magnitude of a great trouble, and to realize some of the innumerable elements of misery in it, that some of us can ever come to feel adequate sympathy with it. And a similar effort is necessary to sympathise perfectly with any great happiness.
But self-discipline is not enough. The want of sympathy should be confessed as a sin, and we should pray to God to pardon it and to give us grace to overcome it. Above all, we should remember that in Christ all perfection is possible to us. His life is our life; we are branches of the great Vine; and whatever grace or beauty appeared in His character may appear in our own. If we abide in Him we may come to have that sensitiveness to suffering which moved Him to compassion when He saw the blind, and the lame, and the leprous, and which made Him weep at the grave of Lazarus, though He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead; and we may come to have that sympathy with the common joys of men which prompted Him to change the water into wine at Cana of Galilee. The imitation of Christ is not impossible to any of us, for in the power of His Spirit all His perfections may become ours; and His deep and perfect sympathy with all the vicissitudes of human sadness and joy was among the fairest and noblest of His perfections.