The Elegance of Sympatheia

A 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’re 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. 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.” 

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 Arelius 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 think about that photo of Earth and hold that zoomed-out perspective, our connection and our 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 planet. Our humanity. What if our world leaders understood and practiced the concept of sympatheia? A better question might be, what if we all did?  §

“What’s good for the hive is good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius

The Joy of Overcoming Obstacles

After a stormy night, the trail I walk each morning was scattered with sticks and debris. As I hiked along the wooded path, I picked up a dozen large limbs and heaved them to the side in a gesture of goodwill towards the next traveler.

The warming sun sent smoky shafts of light through the cool forest mist. The soaking rain intensified the heady smell of pine straw carpeting the trail. My eyes remained on my feet to avoid slipping on the muddy slopes.

I came to a stop when I looked up to see a huge oak tree had fallen across my path. The trunk, three feet in diameter, hung precariously over the trail and stretched about forty feet each direction into the thick woods.

Ducking under the tree seemed unwise. Crawling over it wouldn’t be easy. I briefly considered turning around. Then stepping forward, I heard myself say, “The obstacle is the way.”

It was the title of a book I’d just read. Author Ryan Holiday draws on the ancient philosophy of Stoicism to encourage readers to face life’s challenges with resilience. Holiday writes, “Whatever we face, we have a choice: Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?”

Deciding a fallen tree wouldn’t stop my daily hike,  I stretched one leg on top of the trunk, grabbed hold of the thick bark to pull myself up and over and dropped ungracefully to the the other side. My arms and legs were dirty and scraped, but I felt surprisingly good.

When I reached the blocked path the next day, I crawled on the tree trunk and stood up to take in a higher view of the woods before jumping to the other side. This morning, I walked up and down the full length of the trunk like a balance beam. The fallen tree had become the best part of my morning.

Holiday believes overcoming obstacles in life requires the discipline of three critical steps:

1. Perception – How we view what happens around us can be a source of strength or weakness.

2. Action – We can always choose to act with deliberation, boldness and persistence.

3. Will – We have an internal power we shouldn’t allow the outside world to undermine.

Take notice of obstacles in your life. They may come in the form of disappointment, difficulty, rejection, injury, injustice, illness or heartbreak. When an obstacle appears – large or small – notice how you react to it. Do you accept it? Do you face it with grace and resilience? The good news is if we don’t handle it well, we will certainly get another chance to try again, because obstacles are a part of life.

More than 2,000 years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

I know the folks who maintain the hiking trail will eventually remove the fallen tree, but until then, it remains a fun daily reminder that the obstacle is the way. §