Monday, November 17, 2008

Breaking In a New Pair

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about shoes.

Rather, I've been thinking about walking in other people's shoes.



The weird thing is that this has been on my mind to write about, and I'm sitting in church and my pastor mentions that many of us get empathy and sympathy confused. He pointed out that he grew up without a father and it greatly affected his life for years. He said one of his pet peeves was when people, trying to show empathy, would tell him, "Man, I know how that affected you. I know how you feel."

My pastor said he felt that these people didn't get it. Unless you have actually grown up as a boy without a father , then there is no way you can know what that feels like. You can be aware of the pain it causes, but unless you've felt that ache, you don't know its sting. So, you can have sympathy, but not empathy. And it can be a short trip from sympathy to pity.

That was a deep thought for me.

I've begun to pride myself on my ability to see the world through other people's eyes. Mainly, this is a product of me constantly debating ideas inside my head. I'm searching for a way to make my arguments better, my logic stronger and for a long time I think I've assumed this granted me a measure of empathy.

Now, I'm realizing how stupid that idea was.

Sure, I can see what people's arguments are going to be before they make them, but the next step is being able to understand and appreciate why they make the decisions they make. That step makes it harder to hate those you disagree with, and also makes it possible to like them.

Love thy enemies and neighbors, and all that.

See, I started thinking about this again as I've tried to grow as a Christian, and while reading President-elect Barack Obama's two books. Obama is big on empathy. He has a gift for being able to disagree with people vehmently, but still being able to appreciate what makes them great. Not only that, he can take it even further and really like people for who they are, even if who they are conflicts with how he sees the world.

I ain't there yet.

I don't hate people I disagree with and I pride myself on being able to stay emotionally calm during an argument, but I find it hard to be befriend people I disagree with strongly. Particularly on issues of race. It's very easy to demonize those people who seem to stand on the wrong side when it comes to race. It's exceedingly simple to just label people bigots and treat them as scum.

Eye for an eye, you know?

Ah, but there is a real benefit to loving you enemies. Even if you don't subscribe to Christianity, I think it can help your personal growth if you embrace the concept of true empathy.

Those of you who are married know how hard it can be to truly understand and appreciate another person's point of view. It's a constant struggle, and daily decision to recalibrate how you see the world. Frustration, anger and despair can be regular companions. Many days are spent questioning your decision. And that's a relationship with someone you chose to spend time with.

How much harder is it with people we would much rather avoid?

But, what I've seen is that it's much harder to justify cruelty when you get to know someone. It eats at you when you treat them in a manner that you know was unreasonable. It's more difficult to hold on to anger, tougher to avoid the reality of how you contributed to a bad situation. When you walk in someone else's shoes, you learn their road. You may not want to travel it yourself, but you no longer need directions to get to a common destination.

But, man, those corns are a killer along the way.



Lolo said...

"Love thy neighbor" has to be the single most radical concept of Christianity. Seriously. At the time it was proposed, it was all about tribe against tribe, hell ~ brother against brother, for that matter. And along comes this proposal to LOVE your neighbor?

Crazy, that.

I still think it's the most challenging throwdown of the entire faith, no matter the church. Baptist, Catholic, whathaveyou, it's the one precept that I've never heard much about in the public sphere. I can only imagine how much of a difference it would make in shaping society if there were more emphasis on it.

Jacob said...

nice post

Big Man said...

Love the neighbor is the single most difficult concept in the Bible. Well, maybe putting God above all other things is tougher because of how many things compete for our focus in life. But, loving your enemies and treating everyone the way you want to be treated is certainly difficult.

Anonymous said...

Part of the difficulty of the "love thy neighbor" imperative is the concept of forgiveness. Even when you can reach the point of forgiving a perceived wrong, the "forgetting" part is sometimes impossible. I personally struggle more with the Christian command to forgive. That "turn the other cheek" part is hard to swallow.

Deacon Blue said...

Good post, Big Man...never thought much about the important distinction between empathy and sympathy. Need to be on guard for which I'm using, I suspect, even within the confines of my own family.

older_not_wiser said...

lolo has it right. Jesus' teachings are radical enough in the present context. It's even more amazing to think he lived in a time when savage brutality was an unremarkable fact of life.

@Anon 17 Nov 10:21: Consider this article and this article (both, coincidentally, from the LA Times) together as sort of an Internet parable about forgiveness.

Raving Black Lunatic