Paul Griffin muses on the nature of sympathy its tendency towards sentimentality and its need for being taught by reason

Sympathy is a common feeling, though never common enough. The whole guilt-feeling of the western world shows itself in the word ‘caring’. The Caring Butcher says a typical sign, which indicates that the butcher in question is anxious to join the majority, though whether he claims to be worrying about his meat or his customers or his profits is not stated. Even if he sends a fortune to starving Africa, and cares for little else, could we not do without this constant spelling out of what we know we ought to feel?

But then again, however, it may instead indicate a general wish for mankind to be good-hearted and less selfish, which, whether on social or religious grounds, everyone thinks desirable, however difficult of attainment.

Sentimentality and hypocrisy

Sympathy is not perhaps utterly synonymous with caring. A man who suffers from migraines will readily sympathize with another sufferer: the difficult task for us all is to sympathize with people in quite a different situation from our own -heterosexuals with homosexuals, the rich with the poor, Christians with Hindus, people who have never been called to Holy Orders with ladies who feel they have, and so on. If we find we cannot sympathize, at least we ought to care.

We are in the area of emotion, feelings, a theological minefield. There are not only good feelings and bad feelings, but good feelings that should be resisted, and hence in a complicated way turn out not to be good feelings at all. For example, awareness of conditions in slave ships precipitated the end of the slave trade. Similarly awareness of starvation in Africa brings about efforts to relieve it, but the man who feels so strongly as to sell all that he has and leave his invalid wife in penury so that he can go to Ethiopia is surely in the wrong.

Feelings can conflict, and need to be sorted out by the sovereign faculty of reason. The sympathetic person can be prey to that irrational excess of emotions known as sentimentality.

According to Carl Jung: ‘Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality’ I really cannot agree with this: there was no brutality involved in the wash of sentimental goo that followed the death of Princess Diana. At the root of it all were good feelings that should have been more reasonably balanced.

However, it is true, as someone else said, that no one weeps more copiously than the hardened scoundrel. Hypocrisy, a pretence to non-existent feelings, is not uncommon. That butcher may have been a veritable demon, pretending to feelings he did not possess in order to attract trade and profit. We who rhapsodize over peace and justice and love and beauty sometimes would barely recognize them if they hit us in the face.

There is also the odd but general phenomenon of the enjoyable shedding of tears for their own sake, a sort of self-stimulation which I ought to find reprehensible, but do not.

Why, after all, do we go to King Lear but to do what my daughter calls ‘flooding the gym’, though Aristotle preferred the word ‘catharsis’? There is the moment to which I look forward when the old king wakes and finds himself being cared for by a beautiful lady. He looks, and whispers: ‘Do not laugh at me; for as I am a man I think this lady to be my child Cordelia.’ At that point surely one may collapse in enjoyable tears. I find I look forward to the same emotion when Joseph in Egypt rediscovers his father.

Our Lord’s example

Which suitably brings me to the religious aspect of all this. Our Lord went through life as we would like to, always ‘caring’ especially for the weak. His sympathies are sometimes unexpected, as when he failed to sympathize with those who would stone the woman taken in adultery; and they are not universal, for although he loves children he shows no sympathy with those who offend them. Should we find it significant that he does not say, in the manner of today: ‘Poor devils! They’re ill and need counselling’?

I repeat that unlike our Lord, we are all selfish, and most of us heartily wish we were less so. The Church owes much to preachers who can encourage this, though less to those who overdo it. Overdoing is part of the descent from the true emotion of sympathetic sentiment to the manufactured one of sentimentality. Because of this, we should be nervous of the adulation which surrounds the affairs of numerous celebs, footballers, stage stars, and indeed evangelists, and of blatant assaults on our emotions by newspapers and art of all forms. ‘Strange how potent cheap music is,’ says a Coward character. Indeed.

Here perhaps is a place to note that laughter is an emotion, and that it may, by some curious way of opposites, be a healthy one. WS. Gilbert’s: ‘When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother, He loves to lie a-basking in the sun does not indicate any lack of sympathy with mothers. Rather the reverse.

The role of reason

We are not creatures of emotion alone: we have minds to reason. Earlier ages tended to speak of ‘the erected wit and the infected will,’ as if reason was paramount and all else dangerous. Reason was the divine spark in mankind. This is true for us, to the extent that the effects of emotion, once it has been established as sincere, still need to be submitted to reason before they lead to action.

So it is that we may feel sincere sympathy with those who find themselves born or bred to feel sexual desire for their own kind, or who lament that their service to God is restricted by gender or other differentiation, but that our natural urge to offer them a resolution of their difficulties has to be subject to the divine gift of reason.

I know, I know. This sounds like the words of one of those doctors who, when we say we feel really bad, assure us that we are merely suffering from Coryza, or Pyrexia of Unknown Origin.

A plague on these words, we say, when we know our real trouble is that we feel ghastly; so a plague on everyone who does not see our needs, and put helping us to satisfy them ahead of giving them stupid names!

That said, I hope we really do sympathize. We too must try to be truly Caring Butchers.