A woman who is suffering from a nervous conscience writes a note which shows that she is worrying over this or that supposed mistake, or as to what your attitude is towards her. A prompt, kind, and direct answer will save her at once from further nervous suffering of that sort. To keep an anxious person, whether he be sick or well, watching the mails, is a want of sympathy which is also shown in many other ways, unimportant, perhaps, to us, but important if we are broad enough to take the other’s point of view.
There are many foolish little troubles from which men and women suffer that come only from tired nerves. A wise patience with such anxieties will help greatly towards removing their cause. A wise patience is not indulgence. An elaborate nervous letter of great length is better answered by a short but very kind note.
The sympathy which enables us to understand the point of view of tired nerves gives us the power to be lovingly brief in our response to them, and at the same time more satisfying than if we responded at length.
Most of us take human nature as a great whole, and judge individuals from our idea in general. Or, worse, we judge it all from our own personal prejudices. There is a grossness about this which we wonder at not having seen before, when we compare the finer sensitiveness which is surely developed by the steady effort to understand another’s point of view. We know a whole more perfectly as a whole if we have a distinct knowledge of the component parts. We can only understand human nature en masse through a daily clearer knowledge of and sympathy with its individuals. Every one of us knows the happiness of having at least one friend whom he is perfectly sure will neither undervalue him nor give him undeserved praise, and whose friendship and help he can count upon, no matter how great a wrong he has done, as securely as he could count upon his loving thought and attention in physical illness. Surely it is possible for each of us to approach such friendship in our feeling and attitude towards every one who comes in touch with us.
It is comparatively easy to think of this open sympathy, or even practise it in big ways; it is in the little matters of everyday life that the difficulty arises. Of course the big ways count for less if they come through a brain clogged with little prejudices, although to some extent one must help the other.
It cannot be that a man has a real open sympathy who limits it to his own family and friends; indeed, the very limit would make the open sympathy impossible. One is just as far from a clear comprehension of human nature when he limits himself by his prejudices for his immediate relatives as when he makes himself alone the boundary.
Once having gained even the beginning of this broader sympathy with others, there follows the pleasure of freedom from antagonisms, keener delight in understanding others, individually and collectively, and greater ability to serve others; and all these must give an impetus which takes us steadily on to greater freedom, to clearer understanding, and to more power to serve and to be served.
Others have many experiences which we have never even touched upon. In that case, our ability to understand is necessarily limited. The only thing to do is to acknowledge that we cannot see the point of view, that we have no experience to start from, and to wait with an open mind until we are able to understand.
Curiously enough, it is precisely these persons of limited experience who are most prone to prejudice. I have heard a man assert with emphasis that it was every one’s _duty_ to be happy, who had apparently not a single thing in life to interfere with his own happiness. The duty may be clear enough, but he certainly was not in a position to recognize its difficulty. And just in proportion with his inability to take another’s point of view in such difficulty did he miss his power to lead others to this agreeable duty.
There are, of course, innumerable things, little and big, which we shall be enabled to give to others and to receive from others as the true sympathy grows.
The common-sense of it all appeals to us forcibly.
Who wants to carry about a mass of personal prejudices when he can replace them by the warm, healthy feeling of sympathetic friendship? Who wants his nerves to be steadily irritated by various forms of intolerance when, by understanding the other’s point of view, he can replace these by better forms of patience?
This lower relief is little compared with the higher power gained, but it is the first step up, and the steps beyond go ever upward. Human nature is worth knowing and worth loving, and it can never be known or loved without open sympathy.
Why, we ourselves are human nature!
Many of us would be glad to give sympathy to others, especially in little ways, but we do not know how to go to work about it; we seem always to be doing the wrong thing, when our desire is to do the right. This comes, of course, from the same inability to take the other’s point of view; and the ability is gained as we are quiet and watch for it.
Practice, here as in everything else, is what helps. And the object is well worth working for.