If there were no such thing as sympathy for the plight of others, then indeed the world would be a sorry place. In public life there would be no social harmony: at the workplace no cooperation: and within the home no loving kindness.
On the other hand you might wonder whether sympathy is always a good thing. How realistic is it to try to be on good terms with everybody? Should we try to sympathise with the criminal as well as the victim, the swindler as well as the honest trader, the reckless driver as well as the casualty? To answer this I would suggest it is possible to have sympathy for an individual yet feel harshly about any bad actions that person wants to do.
Without this distinction I believe we can do harm by acting with sympathy. Examples of this might be giving in to a child’s demand for a inappropriate toy, or donating money to a poor person who wants to buy drugs, or voting for government handouts where there is no attempt to distinguish between those who want to remain dependent on benefits and those who are genuinely seeking gainful employment.
Can sympathy be learned?
With some people, feeling warm and having sympathy, seems to come more naturally than with others. What if you are a suspicious kind of person, who is a bit sceptical about other people’s motives? Or someone who sees yourself as tough-minded with a competitive disposition more interested in winning rather than cooperating? Or perhaps you like to keep yourself to yourself and are not interested in other people and do not find being friendly comes easy? If so, you may be wondering whether it is actually possible to learn to feel more sympathy. How could anyone find more patience when someone gives them aggravation and how find more concern for the demands of an angry person?
This is a bit of a jokey suggestion but it might help you to become more willing to care about and help your neighbours if you were to live in a smaller community where you meet people on a regular basis. If you live in an urban environment people are less likely to know each other. In the United States we find such well-known expressions as “Southern hospitality” and “Minnesota nice” in those rural states away from the East and West coasts. Researchers actually found that people in the West, Midwest and South do tend to have higher average scores on agreeableness than people living in other regions of the United States.
Acting with sympathy
It is obvious that the way we feel affects the way we act. But in cognitive-behaviour-therapy it has been found that this can also work the other way around. Sometimes how we behave influences our feelings. You can learn to feel more sympathy by acting in a sympathetic manner. The way this works might be to do with the positive responses we get back from our own actions. For example it so happens that agreeable people who are more sensitive to the needs and perspectives of others, are less likely to suffer from social rejection. Children who are less disruptive, less aggressive and more skilled at entering playgroups are more likely to gain acceptance by their peers. It is easier to acquire sympathy for others who are friendly towards you.
Argumentativeness and feeling sympathy
One obstacle that hinders learning to feel sympathy is wanting to win an argument at all costs. It is not easy to see any merit in the other fellow’s point of view if you are focused entirely on your own line of reasoning. You can hope to sympathise a little bit with what he or she is feeling if you are prepared to pause and put into words what you think is being said to you. Likewise when you are tempted to feel anger in a conflict situation, then counting to ten, and consciously avoiding any coercive tactics, can help you discover possible constructive ways forward that involve sympathy and cooperation rather than rudeness and fighting.
Practising helping others
The more we help others the more we discover what their needs are. Only when we empathise with their predicament can we hope to feel sympathy. I imagine that most people are more likely to want to help their own kith and kin and part of this is probably because they’re more aware of the needs of those whom they regularly see. How much more sympathetic can we be when we become even more familiar with what other people’s needs are.
Challenging hostile thoughts
I would suggest it is impossible to feel sympathy and hostile at the same time. One way forward is to notice why you have resentment or antagonism. Is this possibly due to social prejudice against a member of a stigmatised group, or because you are jumping to conclusions about someone because they are so different from yourself? Like the individual who is uncouth rather than refined, dishevelled rather than tidy, quarrelsome rather than amiable.
By questioning the reasons for one’s attitude, it is possible to moderate negative feelings. Wanting to condemn someone means we are blinded by the bad and failing to notice the good in them and surely this judgmental attitude is an obstacle to feeling sympathy.
Sympathy as an aspect of spirituality
Feelings of sympathy may be skin deep. Having some degree of sympathy for one’s partner may be an advantageous expediency that suits one’s own needs e.g. when married partners have some sympathy for each other because they want to stay together mainly for the sake of the children or because they cannot afford to live apart. I think similar reasons for feeling sympathy applies to other ordinary familiar contexts. But you have to start somewhere and I would claim that further cultivating a generosity of spirit is essential for spiritual growth.
“To desire and expect nothing for oneself and to have profound sympathy for others is genuine holiness”. (Ivan Turgenev)
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems