There is a place in Book One of Ourselves where Charlotte Mason describes sympathy as a lever. I’ve had to read it over and over to even begin wrap my mind around it. The essence of this type of sympathy goes beyond emotions and is a sort of sympathy in greatness. She says that each great work of art offers such sympathy to us, calling us upward, elevating and sustaining us. The great works call to us in sympathy — they do not reach down and become as we are, but rather reach down with a strong arm and pull up to where they are.
This is why she views it as a lever.
But Miss Mason also says the converse is true. If we fail to offer this sort of sympathy to those around us, we are guilty:
[I]f we regard the people about us as thinking small, unworthy thoughts, doing mean, unworthy actions, and incapable of better things, we reap our reward. We are really, though we are not aware of it, giving Sympathy to all that is base in others, and thus strengthening and increasing their baseness …Ourselves, Book One, p. 96-97
It can be hard to see ourselves as using sympathy of calling others to greatness because we know we do not live at a great height. Whatever plane Goethe and Aristotle might have been on, we’re down here with the rest of the Regular people. And yet, it’s we regular people Miss Mason is addressing and warning.
The question to ask is: do we give sympathy to “all that is base in others” therefore making them worse people? That’s a serious charge. How do we assess ourselves justly?
I can think of a paradigm that might help. Do we address people as “thinking small, unworthy thoughts … and incapable of better things?” Do we assume children cannot like reading and so try to dress it up as entertainment? Do we assume children need to be bribed in some way to do their school work? Do we address children as if they were incapable of being interested in anything other than video games? Have we given up on the children we know and love (whether our own or someone else’s) and begun dealing with them in ways that never called them to something greater, higher, or better, but rather solidify their position down there in the dregs of what society calls them to?
Every day we encounter human souls and we have the power to call them higher. This isn’t a Pharisaical situation where we heap burdens and expectations on people around us. This is why the word sympathy is so important. If God has allowed us to think a great thought or love something excellent, it is through a gentle sympathy that these things can call out from us to those we meet or those we live life with.
This, as with many things, starts with those in our own homes. If we address our own children as if they were base — only interested in their own passions, slaves to their feelings, incapable of loving beautiful things or doing great deeds — we will interact with them through bribes and manipulation and we will sigh that that’s how kids are these days.
But there is a better way, a way that offers them hope, that believes they have possibilities for greater deeds and greater thoughts.
So how do we extend this sort of sympathy in real life? Charlotte Mason gives us some very simple instructions:
If we have anything good to give, let us give it, knowing with certainty that they will respond.Ourselves, Book One, p. 96
I may have only a couple loaves and some tiny fishes, but I can offer those simple but wonderful things to the children I know and I can do it with an atmosphere of expectation. In that expectation lies the sympathy that will lift them up. The sympathy is the lever.
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