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

One Sun Wishes Us All a ‘Good Morning’

Driving home from a weekend visit with my daughter in Chicago, I left the city before dawn to beat the Monday morning traffic. As I-90 led me into Indiana, the sky was dark and lonely, lit only by the glow of automated toll booths.

I had all but forgotten about the sunrise, as it was the kind that bursts rather than creeps into view. Suddenly the eastern sky exploded with blinding light, illuminating the sprawling steel mill that sputters and spews on Gary’s lakeshore.

It was magnificent! I instantly felt the sun energize my groggy mind and body. “Good morning,” I said aloud to no one and to everyone.

I thought of Maya Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of the Morning which ends ~“Here, on the pulse of this new day, You may have the grace to look up and out, And into your sister’s eyes, Into your brother’s face, your country, And say simply, Very simply, With hope, Good morning.”

My husband voluntarily rises before the sun nearly every morning. I do not, but the next day I inexplicably woke before dawn. I pulled on jeans over my pajamas, slipped on my sneakers and coat, and ran outside to greet the sun. The morning magic included a thick mist rising up from an invisible lake, a flock of graceful geese flying overhead, and five deer quietly foraging for breakfast.

My sun came up behind thick woods beyond a golden field in the Midwest, yet I vaguely understand the same sun rose over mountains, oceans, deserts, farms, and cities. It rose over mansions and huts. It rose over my house and yours.

I confess it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around that, as well as the sun’s scientific role. It is a star and the source of energy for life on Earth. It provides us light and heat. It allows plants to conduct photosynthesis, creating food to eat and oxygen to breathe. Its reflection off the moon offers a nightlight. It is the gravitational center of our solar system, keeping the planets in place. We use it to mark our days and our years.

What’s easier for me to grasp is the inspiration the sun offers poets, mystics, and artists, and the reason I was outside at dawn in my jammies watching it make its daily debut. Each sunrise brings with it a unifying reminder of the incomprehensible mystery, beauty, and wisdom of our universe.

No matter our differences, the sunrise is our common denominator ~ faithfully shining equally on every upturned, wishful face. So we can all wake up and say, very simply, and with hope, “Good morning!”