Goethe, who lived and died by the indivisibility of art and life, insisted that we ought to treat the works of others, however imperfect, the way we treat their actions — with “a loving sympathy.” And yet one of the most damning paradoxes of our condition is that, again and again, we withhold from others the loving sympathy and empathic understanding we demand for ourselves. When we lose the reins of our own character, when we lash out or sulk or act from a small dark place, we hasten to rationalize our actions as situational — we were too tired, too triggered, too threadbare with stress or vulnerability or loss. When others lose the reins of their character, we hasten to indict their misdeeds as constitutional, representative of a self rather than of a state.
Two centuries after Goethe — epochs that saw the birth of psychology as a systematic effort to do for our emotional fragility what philosophy has endeavored to do for our unwisdom and astronomy for our cosmic solipsism — the poetic astronomer of self-awareness Alain de Botton offers a calibration for the bifocal instrument of our sympathy in The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the wonderful handbook of self-refinement that gave us De Botton on existential maturity and what emotional intelligence really means.
In a section devoted to the most difficult and most rewarding form of generosity there is — what he calls “charity of interpretation” — De Botton writes:
At its most basic, charity means offering someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. This is normally and logically understood to mean something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money. But, in its widest sense, charity stretches far beyond financial donations. Charity involves offering someone something that they may not entirely deserve and that it is a long way beyond the call of duty for us to provide: sympathy.
Like Kepler, who composed the world’s first true work of science fiction as a clever invitation for people to examine their own blind spots through the safe lens of observing the flagrant blind spots of imaginary others, De Botton invites such charity of interpretation toward others by reminding us how deeply it gladdens when we receive it ourselves. Defining this difficult, triumphal generosity of spirit as “an uncommonly generous assessment of our idiocy, weakness, eccentricity, or deceit,” he paints a portrait of what it looks like in others when they confer it upon the fragile and foibled parts of our own nature:
Even when they do not know any of the details, generous onlookers must make a stab at picturing the overall structure of what might have happened to the wretched being before them. They must guess that there will be sorrow and regret beneath the furious rantings, or a sense of intolerable vulnerability behind the pomposity and snobbishness. They must intimate that early trauma and let-down must have formed the backdrop to later transgressions. They will remember that the person before them was once a baby too.
The charitable interpreter holds on also to the idea that sweetness must remain beneath the surface, along with the possibility of remorse and growth.
In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of condescension / Means we all sink.” — De Botton adds:
Such is our proclivity for error and our vulnerability to reversals of fortune, we are all on the verge of needing someone to come to our imaginative aid. And therefore, if for no other reason, we have a duty to remain constant providers of generous interpretations of the lives of others. We must be kind in the sense not only of being touched by the remote material suffering of strangers, but also of being ready to do more than condemn and hate the sinful around us, hopeful that we too may be accorded a tolerable degree of sympathy in our forthcoming hour of failure and shame.
Complement this fragment of the thoroughly resaning School of Life — which was among the finest books of its year — with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, then revisit De Botton on what makes a good communicator, why our partners drive us mad, the psychological paradox of sulking, and his lovely letter to children about reading as a portal to self-understanding.