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 truly.
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 on resentment.
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.