There are many lessons to be taken away from The Theory of Moral Sentiments
: how to be better to one another; how to be better for ourselves; how to live a good life. This is just scratching the surface of the text. Yet an unexpected but important takeaway, is that we all should take a little bit more time to be sad.
Sadness is not a pleasant emotion. It is not something we desire for ourselves, or wish on our friends or family. But life requires it. Suffering cannot be avoided. However, when we observe our friends going through tumultuous times, many of us are tempted to try to turn our friend’s sadness into happiness, by extolling the positives to be found in their situation. We think joy would be a better emotion for them to feel. After all, many of us prefer happiness whenever it is possible. No matter the circumstance or situation, surely it can be found somewhere.
Often though, a part of this temptation is self-interested, even if we don’t want to admit it. Because we empathize with our friends, we also think about how we feel. We look at them, no matter what state they are in, and we imagine ourselves in their shoes. When our friends are suffering, we suffer vicariously, and it is by no means a pleasant sensation. In that way, choosing happiness over suffering is not merely for their sake, but for our own. This would allow us to empathize with something we enjoy feeling. Although Adam Smith would have expected nothing more from our reactions, that doesn’t mean he condones it. In fact, he shows us that we can (and ought) to do better.
In a particularly moving passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith writes: “Yet by relating their misfortunes they in some measure renew their grief. They awaken in their memory the remembrance of those circumstances which occasioned their affliction. Their tears accordingly flow faster than before, and they are apt to abandon themselves to all the weakness of sorrow. They take pleasure, however, in all this, and, it is evident, are sensibly relieved by it; because the sweetness of his sympathy more than compensates the bitterness of that sorrow”.
Smith says that there are times where experiencing grief and sadness is important for those we care for. We need to allow them to feel it so that they can process their emotions. More importantly though, is that they express their sadness to others who can relate to them. To do this, we must feel sad ourselves. This shared experience allows people to feel understood. It is a way we can truly connect with those we care for.
It might just take a bit more work on our part to imagine ourselves in their unfortunate condition. However, our ability to empathize (or sympathize as Smith would say), is how we can go beyond our initial reactions and temptations to do better by one another.
Wanting to joyously celebrate on a friend’s birthday is easy. It is much harder to genuinely feel sadness along with them, but just as important. Which is why we ought to try. Sympathizing with one another is a way we get to know each other better. It is how we grow closer to our friends and loved ones. It is how we can strengthen the bonds between us. It is a small way to make everyone we know feel a little less alone, and a little more understood.