SOMEWHERE among his words of deep wisdom Walt Whitman has written these:—
"Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy
Walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud."
It was a bold image, and yet was hardly too strong to express the
state of him who shuts himself out from communion with his kind. For the man thus encased in his own egoism
entrenches himself in a dreary isolation far worse than that of his coffin, since that can only confine his
body, and has no hold [Page 16] upon his heart and soul. It was well said by Talfourd
that unless a man learns to feel for things in which he has no personal interest, he can achieve nothing generous
or noble. To ordinary eyes the man without sympathy is an active member of society, he controls great affairs,
his word is law to many of his fellow-men, his name stands high upon the list of those whom “the world“ delights
to honour, but to the spiritual insight, like that of the poet, “he
walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud".
And there is the isolation of sorrow, for among the men and women who people our streets, who are our daily companions and intimate friends, nay perhaps walk side by side with us through life, there are many who carry a dead heart in their bosoms, who, in truth, are no longer alive, but from their vacant eyes looks forth only the ghost of what they once were, the shadow of their living past. Some terrible calamity, some slowly creeping treachery, some awful sense of loss has wrecked their lives for ever, and although their bodies still wander desolately about their accustomed haunts, still drearily pursue their accustomed occupations, they are like those unhappy ones described by Dante, who have no longer any hope, even of death. Like dreary ghosts upon the shores of Styx, they wait in a land of shadows, for the grim ferryman to bear them whither they know not, nor do they care.
If there is the isolation of sorrow, there is also the isolation of joy, of the plenitude of well-being, the indifference of those with whom the world goes well, to everything outside their sphere of careless ease. If the others be dead, these are asleep, and lulled in the soft security of happy dreams, they walk through a world veiled in a soft and perfumed mist, that sheds a rosy light over all they seem to see. But such as these, the favoured ones of life, should go about as light-bearers to their less fortunate brethren. Their happiness should radiate like sunshine upon all who come within their reach, their smile should be reflected in every eye that meets theirs, and the world be better and brighter that it has such joy to look at. The happiness of children is contagious, they cheer the dreariest heart, because they insist upon you sharing in their delight and will take no denial.
There are other souls of quite a different texture, who live always in the lives of others, who seem to have almost lost their sense of individuality and to identify themselves with humanity at large, to lose their own joys and sorrows in those of the race. To these generous natures come all the weary and heavy laden, and, in bearing the burdens of others, they find their own peace and rest. Every breath of passion or suffering from another's soul stirs their sympathies, and these flow forth as sweetly and unconsciously as the fragrance from a wind-swept rose.
We cannot all be like these gracious souls, and some of us have to learn to respond, have to cultivate the power of hearing the voice of humanity, the inarticulate appeal, and have to train the tongue to answer in a language that [Page 17] can be understood. The stronger individuality is less flexible, and responds less easily to another's touch; the oak resists the breeze that bends the reed. There are diversities of gifts, and while one person shall have the power of being always in harmony with those about him, of instantly catching the key-note of his fellows and responding in tune, another must painfully labour and blunder towards the same end.
All these are in a certain sense the active forms of sympathy. But there is another and a passive type, by which we receive that which belongs to us. Emerson hints at this in his poem of “Guy," who
“In strange juncture felt with awe
His own symmetry with law:
That no mixture could withstand
The virtue of his lucky hand.
It seemed his Genius discreet
Worked on the Maker's own receipt.
So that the common waters fell
As costly wine into his well."
For what is “symmetry with law" but a subtle sympathy with the ruling forces of the universe ? Dante tells us in the Banquet, that when the purity of the receiving soul is absolutely free from any corporeal shadow, then the Divine Goodness multiplies in her as in a thing worthy to receive it, and, furthermore, according to her capacity of reception. If you sing to a piano with perfect purity of tone, the piano will give back a clear, sweet echo of your note, but if your voice fall short of the proper number of vibrations, there will be no response. We may learn from the laws of the natural, the laws of the spiritual world, and this will explain the truth of the saying in “The Seclusion of the Adept": “No voice can penetrate to his inner hearing till it has become a divine voice". When you have learned to strike the corresponding note, the string will vibrate, but not till then.
“Not unrelated, unaffied,
But to each thought and thing allied,
Is perfect Nature's every part,
Rooted in the mighty Heart."
Do we seek, then, to receive, we must fit ourselves to receive; the
house that would entertain a royal guest must be swept and garnished. We must feel, like Emerson's “Guy", our
own symmetry with law, if we expect the universe to bring its treasures to our feet. Only in the pure soul
does the Divine Goodness multiply, says the great Italian seer, and, furthermore, only according to her capacity.
No man can expect to carry home the ocean in a pint bowl.
And the only sure way to receive this goodness is to increase our sympathy with the good. The more closely we attune ourselves to the pitch of the [Page 18] Higher Self, the swifter and clearer will be the response; and the stronger and more far-reaching the harmonies evoked. To the pure in heart all things are pure, because in the presence of that purity evil cannot live. Darkness is cast out by light. In Hawthorne's exquisite story of “Dr. Rappacini's Daughter", the beautiful Beatrice, who had been fed on poisons, lived unharmed among venomous things, but her very breath was deadly to all things innocent. One of the fundamental laws of nature is that like seeks like, an to make ourselves into the likeness of the thing we desire is the surest way to attain it. What belongs to us by force of this law, sooner or later shall surely be ours, and we may say with Walt Whitman:
“Whether I come to my own today, or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or, with equal cheerfulness, I can wait.
My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite;
I laugh at what you call dissolution;
And I know the amplitude of time.”
And what surer way can there be of enlarging our capacity to receive than by broadening our sympathy with our fellow-men ? Each person that comes into intimate relation with us opens up to us some new vista of thought, some fresher glimpse of truth and love. There is not only the same note evoked by the appeal in perfect unison to an instrument, but accompanying its full vibration are the over-tones, that complete the chord. The more we give the more we shall receive. We lose our own life to find it; we give up our own individuality to share the depths of another's soul, and lo! from out of those depths our own image smiles back to us, and we learn to know ourselves from sympathy with other men. To sympathise, to feel and suffer with our fellow-creatures, is to merge our own existence into the life of the world, to feel the beating of the universal heart, and to realize, in Emerson's words again, “that within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One".
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