Sarah Neill

We’re (Truly) All In This Together

The Greek term “sympatheia” roughly translates to several things: “sympathy”, “fellow-feeling”, or “the state of being together”. Put another way, sympatheia is the idea that everything in the Universe is connected, and is a central theme in ancient Stoic philosophy. As the great Roman leader and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius says,

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.” — Meditations, 6.38

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How is this ancient philosophy relevant? Surely we already understand sympathy! And we can all think of a time when we gathered with a large group for a concert, a protest, or a vigil, where we felt deeply emotionally connected to everyone there sharing that moment with us. But think about the impact of feeling that connection and sympathy toward our fellow humans all the time. That’s sympatheia. So consider this: if everything in the Universe is connected, then everything has the power to affect everything else.

Let’s take the tangible example of a piece of recyclable trash, like a single-use water bottle. In my closest circle, my family, neighbors, and coworkers, if I leave this empty bottle on a table, someone else has to clean it up. My decision and (in)action have impacted one of those people. Zoom out a level and include the community, city, or state. If I were to leave that same empty water bottle on a picnic table in a park, someone I don’t even know has to clean it up. If I throw it in the trash instead of the recycling bin, a different stranger has to pick it out at a facility. Another zoom out shows us a national level: enough empty water bottles thrown in trash instead of recycling bins leads to literal tons of trash in a landfill somewhere, using up precious resources like land and fuel. A final zoom brings us to the Earth. As global citizens, if everyone were to recycle that bottle instead of trash it, we could reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans.

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So how can we embrace the idea that we are all connected and that our actions impact others? I write a lot about “practicing” good habits and virtues, and my advice here is no different. Practice feeling connected to people by looking them in the eyes or really listening to what they have to say, and spend time meditating on this concept.

Imagine if once a day you got a compliment or a friendly “hello” from someone. You’d feel amazing; seen; you’d hold your head high, perhaps a little bounce would show up in your step. And you’d be highly encouraged to share that feeling, by helping, complimenting, or connecting with yet another person. As the feeling spreads in this exponential way, soon half of your city will have been reached by it. Just think how things would be different if half of your fellow citizens shared this view, meditated about it, and took regular actions to spread it. One of my favorite musicians, Ani DiFranco, wrote in a song called “Back Back Back” in 1999 about how it’s not good enough to just take throughout your life, you have to give something back:

Your arrogance is gaining on you
And so is eternity
You better practice happiness
You better practice humility
You took the air, you took the time
You were fed and you were free
Now you’d better put some beauty back
While you got the energy

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Start by pledging to be friendly with others, and to do something selfless every day. Some acts are nearly invisible, yet they elevate the collective consciousness. And keep in mind that a “selfless act” doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as returning a rogue shopping cart left in a parking lot, kicking a rock off a sidewalk so someone else doesn’t stumble, buying coffee or a meal for a first responder, or having a friendly conversation with a houseless person. In fact, that may go even farther than you realize. I live in downtown Portland, where over the past five years there’s been a steady increase in the houseless community. Now in the last nine months with COVID, unemployment, and social unrest, we are experiencing an even more drastic spike. I’ve seen firsthand the impact of a friendly word or a small humane gesture. And according to Cindy Montique of the National Health Foundation,

“The homeless often feel invisible. One of the best ways to help someone experiencing homelessness is to show them respect. As you look into their eyes, talk to them with sincere interest and acknowledge their value as an individual, you reaffirm their humanity.”

While you’re at it, expand your own community. Include someone new at your next event (physical or virtual!). Ask your friends real questions about themselves and be vulnerable in sharing about yourself. Make an effort to clean up the space around you, and make decisions that will benefit the common good.

Keep the concept of sympatheia in mind by meditating about the interconnectedness of all things and considering the impacts of your everyday actions. Soon not only will your actions themselves change by extension, but you will become less selfish and more aware of yourself and those around you. And all of us will benefit from that.

Photographer, designer, writer, runner, activist. I believe that Black lives matter, I support LGBTQ+ rights, and I work to fight the stigma of mental illness.