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The Worth of Sympathy

c. 1907


“Rejoice with them that rejoice and weep with them that weep.”


The word sympathy taken literally means to “suffer with.” Common usage, to a certain extent, justifies this meaning of the word. When we speak of offering our sympathy to anyone we usually mean that some misfortune has happened t him and we are trying to be kind in his hour of need.

But I prefer to give a broader meaning to the word, to use it in its philosophic sense. I choose Professor Bain’s definition rather than the one warranted by the derivation of the work.

“Sympathy,” says professor Bain, “is to enter into the feelings of another and to act them out as if they were our own.”

“To enter into the feelings of another.” Just what does that mean?

As I understand it these words mean this: If I have suffered defeat the battle of life; if I am lonely or sad, you are to forget for the time being your own good fortune and to feel with me, striving to show me that my sorrow is your sorrow and my grief your grief. But it also means that if you are happy over some good fortune that the years has brought o you, I am to forget that I have failed where you have succeed and enter into your joy so heartily that no suggestion will come to you that you joy is not my own. The first is not so difficult. It is easy for kind-hearted people to forget for the moment their own pleasure while they enter int the sorrow of another, but it is hard, very hard, to forget our own pain and sense of loss while we enter freely and fully into the triumphs and joys of another. But these words mean more than this. They mean that we are to understand the feelings of others. They mean that in judging the act or word of anyone we are to try to see form his standpoint. I don not mean that we are to change our opinions or try to alter our convictions — far from that — we need not, often cannot, have any sympathy with certain conclusions, but we may have sympathy — that is, we may understand — the feeling that prompts the conclusion. To illustrate what I mean:

You are a radical in thought. Inheritance, training, inclination, all lead that way. If you are narrow in your outlook upon life, if you are inclined to be dogmatic, you have nothing but words of scorn for your conservative neighbor. But if on the other hand you are broad in your sympathies, if you really seek to enter into the feelings of others, you remember that your neighbor has had other training, other inheritance than yours, and, although you are a radical still, you have the same consideration for his thought that you expect him to have for yours.

Although a radical still, you do not forget that views different from yours are not necessarily inconsistent with good morals and good manners.

A certain amount of knowledge and experience is necessary to broad sympathies. Ignorance is always cramped and narrow. I do not mean knowledge that comes from books alone, but the knowledge that comes from wide reading, much observation and manifold experience. It is usually supposed that travel widens one’s outlook and deepens one’s sympathy. In a measure this is true, but one may travel around the world and see only what he wants to see. He may travel with all his prejudices close at hand and measure everything by his own little rule of good and bad.

If we have no imagination, if we are unable to put ourselves in the place of the one we are judging, then it matters little whether we go abroad or life in our own little house. Our world is bounded by our own petty desires and ambitions. . . .

Knowledge, experience, imagination, yes, we need all of these if we are to have generous sympathies, but more than all we need to care more for people. Love sharpens the understanding and quickens the perceptions. We love to talk of human fellowship in our Unitarian churches, but I wonder sometimes if we have found its real essence, that certain something that makes us feel that we are of one family and leads us to say with the Latin poet that nothing that is human is uninteresting to us.

When we really care for people we do not have to make ourselves interested in them. When we really care their joy is ours, their longings, triumphs, are ours.

Admitting the beauty of this human sympathy of what practical use is it?

The sympathy can be cultivated, but it cannot be pretended. There must be the real interest in human welfare, the real love of all things human, or it will not ring true. . .

Human helpfulness depends upon sympathy. Just in so far as we are able to put ourselves in another’s place, in so far as we understand his temptations, his needs, his habit of mind, in so far as we know him, just in so far are [we] able to be of service to him. How quickly we turn away from sympathy that Is mingled with criticism. How quickly the most stupid of us will notice the judging spirit. How instinctively we draw back and put up the bars of reserve when we feel that back of the sympathetic word is the feeling that would say: “I told you so.” “You should have known better.” “I am sorry for you, but you could have helped it. How often we fail in what we want to do because we cannot divorce from our word and manner the judging spirit. It may be in the the discussion of some intellectual topic where we had hoped to change the thought of a friend, or it may be in social life where we had hoped to bring a better atmosphere, whatever it may be that we hope to do, we fail because we come with the critical rather than the sympathetic spirit.

Have you not often noticed this lack of sympathy on the part of those who have made their way in the world — self-made men and women? One would think that their own hard struggle would make them gentle and sympathetic with those who are contending against hard conditions, but often this is not the case. Such people excuse themselves by saying: “We had no help. No one cared about us,” forgetting that all may not have their physical strength, their power of endurance, or strong will.

Much earnest work in philanthropy fails for the same reason. Not long ago in a city not a thousand miles from Des Moines, ten young women organized themselves into a band of King’s Daughters. They chose for their work the helping of the cash girls in a certain large department store of tier city. They appointed an evening for the first meeting, but no cash girls were there; again and again they attempted to have a meeting, but the little girls would not come. I was interested to know why they had failed and asked some of them about it. It took but a moment’s conversation to reveal the secret. These young women were earnest and perfectly  honest in their desire to be of service, but they were working entirely from a sense of duty; there was no joy, no delight, I the work. They had no real interest in the little girls who were contending against such odds in the battle of life. They had a sort of grim, half-impatient desire to do something for the helping of the world about them — more because they were ashamed not to do something than because they were really interested. They condescend, reached down, patronized, and each sturdy little cash girl refused to be helped in that way. Not long after I was standing in the same store and overhead two little girls talking.  

“Are you going tonight?” said one. “Going where?” said the other. “Going to the club for shop girls?” “No,” said the first, and her voice showed great scorn. “No, I ain’t going to be done good to.”

Think what might have been done for both the young women and the little girls — for the young women needed the little cash girls as much as the little cash girls needed them. Think of what might have been done for both and was not done because the spirit of love was lacking.

Sociologists tell us that society is an organism, that socially speaking there is no such thing as an individual, that we are so related that together we must rise or fall. This is the science of the question. So far all students of economies and sociology are agreed, but what this principle means in religion and ethics is not readily believed, or rather not so readily worked out. Why? Because we have not yet learned how to rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those that weep.

We claim to be true democrats. We pray, “our Father who art in heaven,” we talk glibly of human brotherhood and sisterhood and yet we go about well protected with all sorts of reserves of manner and words. I realized that not long ago while waiting in a railway station. It was hot and dust and we had to wait many hours. The room was full of tired impatient people. We were not satisfied wit our environment and so we tried to make it as bad as possible. No one thought of being cheery or agreeable. There were many fretful children, but no one made the slightest attempt to amuse them. Each withdrew into the most impenetrable reserve. After a while a boy came in with pond-lilies for sale. This made a slight diversion, for most people care for flowers, but the severe-looking man in the corner and the sour-looking woman near him paid no attention. The man took more than his share of the seat, and the sour-looking woman would not move her bundles. After a while when the effect of the flowers had worn away and everyone was again looking cross, a young man took from his pocket a small French-harp or mouth organ and began to play softly for the amusement of one of the fretful babies. The tune soon wandered into “Home, Sweet Home.” The music was touching and sweet and at last a common bond of sympathy was found. We all had homes of some sort. Each one was either going home or going away from home. Each face softened. Tears came into some of the tired eyes. The cross-looking man moved away from the arm of the seat where he had been crowding a meet little woman. The sour-looking woman moved her bundles giving the one next [to] her more room and offered some candy to a baby nearby. An indescribable hush and peace stole into the hot, dusty room. It seemed cooler, and we remembered that our wait was nearly over and it had not been so bad after all. We began to talk to one another, to laugh and joke about the heat. We were friends, united by the one common bond of sympathy — the love of home. Strange, was it not, that it took a whole afternoon to find one bon of sympathy among a room full of tired people all needed  to be cheered and comforted.

As I went on my way that night, I thought over the sermon of the afternoon. Life is full of waiting for most of us. The trains that are to bear us away to happiness came slowly and in some cases never come at all. There are long forenoons, dreary afternoons, lonesome evenings. I t cannot be otherwise in a world where each must carve out his own character and work out his own salvation. But how much cheerier would be these waitings, how much beauty and inspiration would come into them if we would help more to bear each others’ burdens. If our eyes were quick to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to feel. If we really tried to understand each other.

Professor DuBois writes the whole story when he says:

“Herein lies the tragedy of the age not that men are poor, —
All men know something of poverty;
Not that men are wicked, who is good?
Not that men are ignorant, what is truth?
Nay, but that men know so little of each other.”



Source: Old & New, June 1907


Also: Standing Before Us, Unitarian Universality Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936, ed. Dorothy May Emerson, June Edwards, Helene Knox, (Boston: Skinner House Books) 2000, pp. 134-139.