Some of the visions from Election Night are memorable. Others incredibly moving and weighty. I remember hearing the word “pathos” for the first time while sitting in a college seminar. As I recollect, the professor struggled to define the word, finally settling in lowest, common-denominator style on “suffering.” A dictionary I found defines the word pathos in the following way: A quality, as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow.
Pathos shakes us. It stirs us. It stands, confrontively, between us and indifference.
Over the years, however, I have come to understand pathos as a profound sense of feeling, or being alive. It’s emotion—any emotion—at the deepest levels of our being. This could of course include profound joy or profound sadness; from the deepest sense of loss to the most euphoric sense of victory. Pathos shakes us. It stirs us. It stands, confrontively, between us and indifference. I would add that, like so many things we take for granted, that the ability to feel at this level is most certainly a gift from God.
As I have grown older I’ve come to appreciate more and more my conversations with my mother. During a recent conversation about life, family, and parenting she told me that a parent is only “as happy as the saddest child.” The comment struck a chord that did more for me than so much formal education and reading ever could. What she described was pathos.
As small group leaders and pastors perhaps we could step back reflect on this understanding of pathos and how it applies to us in these roles. Scripture tells us, “rejoice with those that rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Pathos may embody the deepest sense of commitment and community.