The Elegance of Sympatheia

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngA television news anchor broke down in tears while interviewing a Ukrainian father whose wife and two children were killed while trying to escape their city under siege. I know I’m not the only viewer who wept with them. In that moment, we were experiencing what the ancient Greeks called sympatheia, an elegant concept that all things are mutually woven together and have an affinity for each other.

Sympatheia reminds us we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. You’ve probably seen a photo called The Blue Marble. It is an image of Earth taken fifty years ago by the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the Moon. It was shot 18,000 miles from our planet and is one of the most reproduced images in history. About the photo, astronomer Carl Sagan said, “There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” 

This summer the James Webb Space Telescope, a 10 billion dollar satellite located a million miles away, is sending us celestial images I can barely fathom. According to NASA, the very faintest blips of light in the photos are of galaxies as they existed more than 13 billion years ago. The images confirm for me that we are part of an incomprehensibly elegant universe. 

Maybe you’ve had a similar feeling standing on the ocean shore, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or under a million stars in the vast night sky. This oceanic feeling happens when we allow ourselves to have a zoomed-out perspective. It’s then we experience a feeling of awe and realization that we are very small, but part of something incomprehensibly big.  

Stoic philosophy is rooted in the concept of sympatheia. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” The Stoics understood we are essentially all the same. We all suffer and cry, love and laugh, live and die. Sympatheia allows us to understand that our actions affect one another. 

Ryan Holiday, author and host of the podcast The Daily Stoic said, “We are all unified and share the same substance. We breathe the same air. We share the same hopes and dreams. We are all descended from the same. And this is true no matter what race you are, no matter where you come from, or what you believe.” 

My guess is sympatheia doesn’t come naturally to our selfish egos. Of course, we look out for number one. We probably care about family and those immediately around us. We might even feel a duty to those who look like us, live like us, and think like us. Sympatheia takes some work. 

If we contemplate the photos coming to us from the James Webb Telescope and hold that zoomed-out perspective, our connection and responsibility grow. We can see we are part of an interconnected world, where everything and everyone is united in a delicate relationship. It is this connection to each other that can push us to be and do what’s good, not just for a part, but for the whole.

Aurelius wrote, “The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit and never for harm.” In the big picture, our differences are insignificant. What unites us is our sameness. Our universe, our planet, and our humanity depend on the elegance of sympatheia. §

“That which is not good for the bee-hive, cannot be good for the bees.”
~Marcus Aurelius