Sympathy

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XVII: SYMPATHY

But there is one thing which we must constantly bear in mind, and which all enthusiastic people must particularly recollect, namely, that our delight and interest in life must be large, tolerant, and sympathetic, and that we must not only admit but welcome an immense variety of interest. We must above all things be just, and we must be ready to be both interested and amused by people whom we do not like. The point is that minds should be fresh and clear, rather than stagnant and lustreless. Enthusiastic people, who feel very strongly and eagerly the beauty of one particular kind of delight, are sadly apt to wish to impose their own preferences upon other minds, and not to believe in the worth of others’ preferences. Thus the men who feel very ardently the beauty of the Greek Classics are apt to insist that all boys shall be brought up upon them; and the same thing happens in other matters. We must not make a moral law out of our own tastes and preferences, and we must be content that others should feel the appeal of other sorts of beauty; that was the mistake which dogged the radiant path of Ruskin from first to last, that he could not bear that other people should have their own preferences, but considered that any dissidence from his own standards was of the nature of sin. If we insist on all agreeing with ourselves it is sterile enough; but if we begin to call other people hard names, and suspecting or vituperating their motives for disagreeing with us, we sin both against Love and Light. It was that spirit which called forth from Christ the sternest denunciation which ever fell from his lips. The Pharisees tried to discredit His work by representing Him as in league with the powers of evil; and this sin, which is the imputing of evil motives to actions and beliefs that appear to be good, because our own beliefs are too narrow to include them, is the sin which Christ said could find no forgiveness.

I had a personal instance of this the other day which illustrates so clearly what I mean that I will quote it. I wrote a book called The Child of the Dawn, the point of which was to represent, in an allegory, my sincere belief that the after-life of man must be a life of effort, and experience, and growth. A lady wrote me a very discourteous letter to say that she believed the after-life to be one of Rest, and that she held what she believed to be my view to be unchristian and untrue. The notion that ardent, loving, eager spirits should be required to spend eternity in a sort of lazy contentment, forbidden to stir a finger for love and, truth and right, is surely an insupportable one! What would be the joy of heaven to a soul full of energy and love, condemned to such luxurious apathy, forced to drowse through the ages in epicurean ease? If heaven has any meaning at all, it must satisfy our best and most active aspirations; and a paradise of utter and eternal indolence would be purgatory or hell to all noble natures. But this poor creature, tired no doubt by life and its anxieties, overcome by dreariness and sorrow, was not only desirous of solitary and profound repose, but determined to impose her own theory upon all the world as well. I blame no one for desiring rest; but to wish, as she made no secret that she wished, to crush and confound one who thought and hoped otherwise, does seem to me a very mean and wretched point of view. That, alas, is what many people mean when they say that they believe a thing, namely that they would be personally annoyed if it turned out to be different from what they hoped.

I am sure that we ought rather to welcome with all our might any evidence of strength and energy and joy, even if they seem to spring from principles entirely opposite to our own. The more we know of men and women, the more we ought to perceive that half the trouble in the world comes from our calling the same principles by different names. We are not called upon to give up our own principles, but we must beware of trying to meddle with the principles of other people.

And therefore we must never be disturbed and still less annoyed by other people finding fault with our tastes and principles, calling them fantastic and sentimental, weak and affected, so long as they do not seek to impose their own beliefs upon us. That they should do so is of course a mistake; but we must recognise that it comes either from the stupidity which is the result of a lack of sympathy, or else from the nobler error of holding an opinion strongly and earnestly. We must never be betrayed into making the same mistake; we may try to persuade, and it is better done by example than by argument, but we must never allow ourselves to scoff and deride, and still less to abuse and vilify. We must rather do our best to understand the other point of view, and to acquiesce in the possibility of its being held, even if we cannot understand it. We must take for granted that every one whose life shows evidence of energy, unselfishness, joyfulness, ardour, peacefulness, is truly inspired by the spirit of good. We must believe that they have a vision of beauty and delight, born of the spirit. We must rejoice if they are making plain to other minds any interpretation of life, any enrichment of motive, any protest against things coarse and low and mean. We may wish-and we may try to persuade them-that their hopes and aims were wider, more bountiful, and more inclusive, but if we seek to exclude those hopes and aims, however inconsistent they may be with our own, that moment the shadow involves our own hopes, because our desire must be that the world may somehow become happier, fuller, more joyful, even if it is not on the lines which we ourselves approve.

I know so many good people who are anxious to increase happiness, but only on their own conditions; they feel that they estimate exactly what the quantity and quality of joy ought to be, and they treat the joy which they do not themselves feel as an offence against truth. It is from these beliefs, I have often thought, that much of the unhappiness of family circles arises, the elders not realising how the world moves on, how new ideas come to the front, how the old hopes fade or are transmuted. They see their children liking different thoughts, different occupations, new books, new pleasures; and instead of trying to enter into these things, to believe in their innocence and their naturalness, they try to crush and thwart them, with the result that the boys and girls just hide their feelings and desires, and if they are not shamed out of them, which sometimes happens, they hold them secretly and half sullenly, and plan how to escape as soon as they can from the tender and anxious constraint into a real world of their own. And the saddest part of all is that the younger generation learn no experience thus; but when they form a circle of their own and the same expansion happens, they do as their parents did, saying to themselves, “My parents lost my confidence by insisting on what was not really important; but my objections are reasonable and justifiable, and my children must trust me to know what is right.”

We must realise then that elasticity and sympathy are the first of duties, and that if we embark upon the crusade of joy, we must do it expecting to find many kinds of joy at work in the world, and some which we cannot understand. We may of course mistrust destructive joy, the joy of selfish pleasure, rough combativeness, foolish wastefulness, ugly riot-all the joys that are evidently dogged by sorrow and pain; but if we see any joy that leads to self-restraint and energy and usefulness and activity, we must recognise it as divine.

We may have then our private fancies, our happy pursuits, our sweet delights; we may practise them, sure that the best proof of their energy is that they obviously and plainly increase and multiply our own happiness. But if we direct others at all, it must be as a signpost, pointing to a parting of roads and making the choice clear, and not as a policeman enforcing the majesty of our self-invented laws.

Everything that helps us, invigorates us, comforts us, sustains us, gives us life, is right for us; of that we need never be in any doubt, provided always that our delight is not won at the expense of others; and we must allow and encourage exactly the same liberty in others to choose their own rest, their own pleasure, their own refreshment. What would one think of a host, whose one object was to make his guests eat and drink and do exactly what he himself enjoyed? And yet that is precisely what many of the most conscientious people are doing all day long, in other regions of the soul and mind.

The one thing which we have to fear, in all this, is of lapsing into indolence and solitary enjoyment, guarding and hoarding our own happiness. We must measure the effectiveness of our enjoyment by one thing and one thing alone-our increase of affection and sympathy, our interest in other minds and lives. If we only end by desiring to be apart from it all, to gnaw the meat we have torn from life in a secret cave of our devising, to gain serenity by indifference, then we must put our desires aside; but if it sends us into the world with hope and energy and interest and above all affection, then we need have no anxiety; we may enter like the pilgrims into comfortable houses of refreshment, where we can look with interest at pictures and spiders and poultry and all the pleasant wonders of the place; we may halt in wayside arbours to taste cordials and confections, and enjoy from the breezy hill-top the pleasant vale of Beulah, with the celestial mountains rising blue and still upon the far horizon.

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