Sympathetic Joy is a term I heard a few months ago, that I’d forgotten about, which came upon me again yesterday. I’ll probably hedge a bet this is probably one of the first if not first times you’ve heard it too?
But maybe not. At first I felt like the words don’t quite fit together. Sympathy is something associated with sadness or hardship, offering someone a proverbial shoulder in the form of acknowledgement: “I’m sorry you’re hurting”. You’re not able to understand exactly their circumstances, but you can be there to hold space for their pain.
So how does this connect with joy? It’s the same gesture of holding space on behalf of somebody else, but in the context of kindness. And don’t we all know that I love a good piece of mushy writing about how people can be less of a dick to one another.
Currently I’m working at a hostel in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, where in exchange for some hours’ work a day I get free rent and some pocket money as a bonus (hence the sporadic activity on this website at the moment). Last night in the early evening, I was sat outside journalling by the fire pit. The hostel is based in an alpine region, surrounded by throngs of tall pine trees and protectively cradled by the Rocky Mountains. It’s getting cooler now too, winter famously returning overnight at this elevation after summer ends. The sharp air mixed with damp pine and faint smoke from neighbouring buildings’ chimneys is enough to make you feel completely and effortlessly zen. But damn my bones were getting cold.
I came outside because the lodge’s lounge upstairs was rammed full of families and people talking and chattering and making a racket, the restaurant line clogging up the lobby making it barely possible to even waddle out of there. Instead of reading/journalling upstairs as per my normal evenings, I was getting pissed off with all the people so I trudged out into the 0 degrees, in my (bright yellow, ugly and therefore, unstealable) plastic sandals.
As I sat there though, I watched the warm glow of the activity inside and the families enjoying their dinner, laughing, probably talking about the day, or what they’d get up to tomorrow, or generally being excited for the remainder of their trip. Partners were sat side by side on couches. Kids were running around being kids. Others were tucking into their warm meals in a room full of other people at ease; no distancing, no social restrictions. All melting together in the way we humans are supposed to exist – as a community.
That’s when the phrase Sympathetic Joy came to me and I flipped the pancake of my perspective, moving from pissed off to soft. My mood morphed into a fuzzy warmness, instead of the hot, pinching, sharpness I felt before. I wasn’t exactly in their circumstance, their family or their specific context, nevertheless I was still able to tap into what their experience would feel like, being conscious of joy on their behalf. I felt like the Grinch during that pivotal moment when he discovers he’s actually able to feel.
In a less dramatic (and green) observation, I think this Sympathetic Joy stuff could be a minor superpower, y’know? While my example isn’t exactly the strongest here, the context can apply to so many things we go through that can be frustrating, whereby we are frustrated by the actions of others – taken at face value and with a pinch of salt, obviously. And like everything, it’s probably easier said than done. And as a final (but important) caveat: if someone’s being a straight up dick to you, then of course I’m not asking you to envisage them through that mushy sympathetic lens. Having said, it might help to keep in mind that hurt people, hurt people. But man alive, that’s another excessively sentimental post for another day.
Quite simply – I think if we’re able to be happy for others despite our current circumstances (as much as allows), or even just consider the happiness of others and what that feels like – allowing ourselves to feel that too, maybe we can move through the world with more kindness until it becomes a reflex as simple as returning a smile.