I’ve been reading some writings from Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With A Thousand Faces, where he talks about the idea that only through experience can you know sympathy. He says, “It is through experience that the soul grows, by learning to extend its horizon of sympathy and understanding.” In other words, a person can’t sympathize with sorrow until they have been sorry enough to know what deep sorrow is.
I’m not altogether sure I agree. As a teenager, I had many peers who seemed extremely compassionate to poor people and the plight of non-whites in our society. Back then, we were a generation against the Vietnam war, though few of us ever served in the military, and we were all for civil rights, even though most of my friends were white. We came to these conclusions through logical consideration and, for some, peer pressure.
On the other hand, as I grow older—I’m now in my mid 60s—I have become much more compassionate to all my fellow human beings, and I credit that attitude to having experienced a long series of, lets call them learning opportunities, where I suffered as a target of discrimination. In short, I’ve had more than my share of sorrows, and I like to think that I have learned a great deal from them. And the older I grow, the more I understand that there is no good and bad, no right and wrong. There is only experience, and what we do with that experience.
I’ve also learned that each of us humans have accumulated a different set of experiences that shape our lives, and that makes each of us unique, no one person any better, worse, or more valuable than the rest.
Campbell argues that it is through having experienced all experience that the soul finally achieves perfect sympathy and understanding. The soul comes to a point where it has learned everything experience can teach, and that point is called enlightenment. Campbell takes this idea a step further to suggest that all people should do everything they can do to accumulate a vast wealth of varied experience, and that getting tied down in any routine where one practices the same thing day after day for years at a time (like a dead-end job that does nothing more than put food on the table) means stagnation, and is tantamount to death. Again, I must disagree. I believe even so called “dead-end jobs” provide opportunities for growth and understanding, and the job is only ten hours in a day. There is so much more to life and learning.
Although I must admit, my life improved a hundred fold after I abandoned corporate America to pursue a career in writing where I manage my own time, goals, and interests. So perhaps Campbell is on to something.