Sympathy and Social Isolation

Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

March 23, 2020

How do we practice sympathy in a time of social isolation?
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments insists that our ability to sympathize with one another in times of joy or distress is one of the fundamental things that makes us human, and helps us learn to be better humans. But Smith’s conception of sympathy is rooted in our ability to see other people, to be “spectators” of their pleasure and their agony, and then to respond.

How do we practice sympathy in a time of social isolation?

Those of us who suddenly find ourselves isolated with our families may find it hard to recognize Smith’s description of family life. 
With what pleasure do we look upon a family, through the whole of which reign mutual love and esteem, where the parents and children are companions for one another, without any other difference than what is made by respectful affection on the one side, and kind indulgence on the other; where freedom and fondness, mutual raillery and mutual kindness, show that no opposition of interest divides the brothers, nor any rivalship of favour sets the sisters at variance, and where every thing presents us with the idea of peace, cheerfulness, harmony, and contentment? (TMS, I.ii.4.2 ) 

In a house where kids are missing their friends, school clubs, and sports teams, and facing the cancellation of greatly anticipated competitions and parties, where parents are trying to oversee online learning, get their own work done, and cobble together meals from whatever portion of the grocery list they were able to acquire, it can be pretty hard to feel the kind of harmony and companionship that Smith writes about here. Indeed, sometimes it seems like there’s nothing like being locked in with one’s own family to make a slightly more isolated version of social isolation sound like a good idea. How can we practice Smithian sympathy when the people we live with are driving us crazy?

On other other hand, in a house where one is all alone all day, every day, social isolation can rapidly become a re-enactment of the most distressing scenes from movies like Castaway and the worst cliches about working from home. How can we practice Smithian sympathy when we haven’t seen another human for a week? 

The second of these may be easier to address than the first. While Smith often had to wait weeks for a letter from his dear friend David Hume, we are able to reach out instantly to message with our friends. We can even use Facetime or Zoom to see their faces, introduce our kids to each other, or host virtual gatherings for drinks or dinner. None of that is a perfect substitute for face to face social interaction, but they’re pretty good for the moment. And any of them will help to remind us that the rest of the world is in this with us, and that it’s probably best to get out of our pajamas and not have too many dinners of popcorn and wine. Technology allows us to have the kind of literal “spectators” who help spur our impartial spectator to get us off the couch and into the stream of things--even when the stream of things is radically uncertain.

But that first situation, that’s a tricky one. We’re locked in with the people we love most. We really do love them, and yet they’re driving us absolutely mad. It may be that the best we can do is to model the kind of behavior we would like to see everyone engage in. We can remember that Smith says that one who is “sunk in sorrow and dejection upon account of any calamity of his own” appears “mean and despicable.” We can try, then, not to indulge in that kind of dejection. Instead, we can put our energy into finding ways to help our families move out of their own dejection about everything that they’re missing. We can hold ourselves together and hope that others will see that model, sympathize with it, and try to replicate it. 

None of it is easy. I find myself ill-suited to be a home-schooling mom, a life coach, and a physical therapist, and yet here I am. But Smith never said sympathy is easy. He said it is important, that it takes practice, and that we have to keep working on it--maybe most importantly when it’s hardest to do.