Human Sympathy

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, 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 standard.

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.

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