|The Queen of Sympathy: Helen Steiner Rice|
“Sympathy” is the first of our four levels of voluntary and intentional identification with others. Even at this most basic level, we face our tendency to avoid such identification at all. We are tempted to identify others as “them,” and set boundaries that prevent us from being drawn into the needs of others. Frankly, if self-protection and self-provision are entirely our own individual responsibility, this makes perfect sense.
But the One who promises us His provision and protection (Matthew 6:31-33) calls us to emulate His ministry of cruciform, sacrificial servanthood toward all others. I believe His second great commandment rests on understanding all human beings as persons created to bear the image and likeness of God, and who continue to do so, even while still scarred by sin’s damage, and even when they have not yet learned to trust to Great Physician to begin His work in healing that damage.
The Dual Challenge of Showing Only Sympathy, or Even Sympathy at All
So, then: Sympathy – as I offered in the Overview post about the four levels of identification (August 14, 2014 – Found here: http://deathpastor.blogspot.com/2014/08/unity-in-and-among-diversity-overview.html) – can be defined as “to feel for” others. This allows only a limited identification with others’ experience, and is expressed most often only briefly and verbally (sometimes only in the words of Hallmark) before returning to one’s own personal concerns. But it is, for most of us, the only starting point available.
|Oldboy: No sympathy for him.|
And yet, it is very difficult to describe how to have sympathy, and not let it become compassion, or empathy, or even solidarity. If we allow ourselves to feel for someone, how do we resist the compelling urge to intervene in their needs, taking action beyond sympathy, actually showing compassion. Even the most carefully limited practice of sympathy cannot prevent us from being pulled further toward empathy and solidarity.
Sympathy is frustrating in other ways as well. We often have no idea what so many experience in their circumstances. Thus, we simply don’t know what we could do for whatever needs and challenges they may face. Imagining, then, that there would simply be more frustration, we avoid allowing any feeling toward those in wide ranges of needs.
Our imaginations are indeed limited with regard to the potential amelioration, mitigation, or palliation of others’ needs. Now, before you go look up those words, I believe the best understanding we can have of what it means to experience sympathy is to consider the ways in which we avoid it (lest it drag us off into compassion, empathy or, worse, the commitment to solidarity with our fellow human beings). So, add one more word to the vocabulary list: “antipathy.”
Definition by Contrast – What Sympathy Is Not
“Antipathy” means to oppose feelings toward another, and even to hold feelings of opposition toward the person themselves. (To save you a trip to Webster’s: to ameliorate = to improve or restore another’s damaged condition or circumstance; to mitigate = to lessen the damage of a negative condition on another; to palliate = to diminish the pain of the damage in that negative condition.)
|When you can't find the words...|
A couple of recent conversations illustrated for me that our antipathy can be sometimes subtle and relatively benign, sometimes overt and vicious, and, in both cases, sufficiently rationalized as to defend it as “the Christian position.” I won’t bore you with the details of one’s suggestions that a first step toward world peace would be the annihilation of all Muslims everywhere, and that the socio-political problems in California would be vastly improved by “flushing” the underclass inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin out to sea in order to feed the dwindling fishery reserves. (Yes. Seriously. And in so many words.) Most of my beloved Christian brothers and sisters hold more moderate positions. Still, especially because of their subtlety, the stereotypes, prejudices, and admittedly ignorant conclusions require some scrutiny.
How to Avoid the Snares of Sympathy
Our area’s most prevalent underclass, is less racially identified than it is socio-economically. As some of us discussed those who are marginally housed and fed, and especially the homeless, there were several strong opinions about why we could ignore (what I pointed out were the objects of “pure religion and undefiled before God,” according to James 1:27) the needs of the widows, orphans, and aliens in their distress. Focusing primarily on the homeless, their condition was presumed to be caused by drug addiction in most cases. When that was challenged, mental illness, marital infidelity, and children’s rebellion against their families were among the other top candidates.
|Sympathy can be radically misplaced.|
What seemed most important, though, was to reduce the complex process by which someone became homeless to as few causes as possible, preferably one single cause. The overarching category that seemed to best serve that purpose: the homeless fail to trust in Christ.
We explored the logic a bit. The most direct cure for homelessness, then, would be related directly to this last cause. The premise: if someone became homeless, then it was a sign of not trusting Christ. The extension: Therefore, in order to no longer be homeless, one should become a Christian. Supporting evidence: Some suggested it is taught by scripture, since David states, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his descendants begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25) As an objection: David himself had previously begged bread, which suggests that “the righteous” be considered in the plural sense of fellowship among God’s people (he and his men having received sustenance from within the tabernacle of God). Conclusion: Toward the goal of avoiding such solidarity, or the empathy and/or compassion to which sympathy would usually lead us, the remedy more clearly grasped is a rationalized antipathy toward others. Especially toward those for whom we imagine being beyond any remedy to their presumably self-inflicted circumstances.
|A dish best served hot...with tea.|
Facing the Reality of Choosing Our Direction
So, sympathy may lead to greater involvement. It may frustrate us by revealing needs we don’t fully understand. And some toward whom we show sympathy may be in need for self-inflicted causes. Worst of all, however, we cannot consistently hold onto sympathy in our voluntary, intentional identification with others. That leaves two choices. Either we accept that others’ circumstances, if allowed to affect us, will lead us to compassion, if not empathy and solidarity. Or we accept that we will concoct as many rationalizations as necessary to justify our antipathy toward our fellow human beings, persons created by God to bear His image and likeness.
However difficult the first option may be, it is far preferable to abandoning our calling to cruciform, sacrificial servanthood. Choose sympathy, and let the Lord lead where He may.