Are we mutating as a species away from the capacity to suspend judgment long enough to consider what the world looks like through another’s eyes? Is it a matter of narcissism or ignorance or just lack of practice? Is our imagination so limited to a view that accounts only for our own experience of reality, the rest of the world be damned?
It used to be that we considered those of us who believe ourselves to be at the “center of the universe” to be impaired in some way—emotionally wounded so that their very survival required that their full attention be focused only on their own feelings and perspectives, to the exclusion of others. Parents know that’s perfectly natural when we’re two-year-olds. Sometimes Mom needs a break, but the fact that I’m scared, I’m hungry, I’m soiled, I’m wanting to play with this or that is the only thing of importance—her only role is meeting my needs and desires. Our brains haven’t been around long enough, our experiences too limited to develop the awareness that other people exist—other people whose needs co-exist and sometimes compete with ours—requiring evaluation of the relative order in which those needs must be met for a civilized and mostly democratic society to exist.
We give in to two-year-olds because we know that, in time, as their brains mature, they’ll grow out of it, hopefully having learned that living with others requires that they consider, truthfully, the boundaries of their kingdoms, and yield when another’s needs supersedes their desires without throwing a tantrum. By the time they’ve reached the “age of majority,” we assume they are capable of negotiating that terrain successfully. But lately, I’m not so sure it’s a given anymore.
One of the tasks of civilized society—especially in a so-called “democracy”—is the give and take, the hem and haw, the yin and yang required to reach the best solutions for the most people. More than a few among us act as if we’re playing a game or involved in an all-too-common modern-day business negotiation where the “winner” takes all, instead of a compact between equals to ensure that the solutions leave the inalienable rights of all unmolested.
In a country of 350 million, of countless ethnicities and experiences, that takes more than a little effort, and a measure of wisdom, which includes awareness of the concept that there are some things no single individual can know. For instance, I am a 55-year-old white female born and raised in the southern United States. If I live 1000 years, I will never know absolutely what it feels like to be 30 in 2012, or male, or the nuances of life and memory of those born even in New York, much less Japan or Pakistan or Iraq or Libya.
To have any conceptual understanding at all of how the world looks through the eyes of another, I have to separate the things I share with him from the things I don’t, balancing those things common to all humans, like what it feels like to be hungry and disappointed and afraid, against the knowledge and experiences and conclusions that are uniquely his.
Recognizing my limitations with respect to the latter, I must learn as much as I can about those unique events, what he thinks, what affects his perspective about a given subject, by listening to him, searching my memory for unique experiences of my own which may compare so that I might broaden my perspective and the accuracy of my empathy the next time. In doing so, it is my hope that when it is my turn, he will listen to me with the same attention and respect.
Listening with the intent to better understand is not synonymous with agreeing. And disagreement isn’t synonymous with disrespect. Self-confident, informed, reasoning adults know that because you allow someone to express his views doesn’t mean you have to submit to believing its content. Buddha was reported as saying, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I absolutely agree, as one who never studied from other people’s notes, even in school. But if I’m honest, I have to say that I remember no time that I truly listened to another’s perspective on something that really mattered to both of us without chewing on a point I would never have even thought of otherwise.
We owe it to ourselves to explore every option, every view, every idea to its fullest extent, no matter where it comes from, examining it for its potential for positive impact and, of course, its flaws. No matter who’s talking, there will always be flaws in our reasoning—none of us is omniscient. But the exploration itself cannot even begin if we’re misguided enough to think that we already know what another is thinking and dismiss it without even a hearing. I mourn all the possibilities that have never seen light, the wounds to hope sustained in battles that should never have been fought. We must do better. And we can.
Maybe I’m nuts, but it seems to me that reclaiming our empathy—not just the emotional capacity to experience what another is feeling, which should result in the exercise of self-restraint, but the mental capacity to embrace that the universe in which even the closest to us lives is not the same as ours, do our imperfect best to consider what it feels like to walk in another’s shoes, and start listening to each other—is the only path to peace and progress for the good of humankind.
But if any of you have other ideas…