Where Empathy Begins
Illustrated by Logan Voutsinas
“Empathy begins with understanding life from another person's perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It's all through our own individual prisms.”
This quote from American actor Sterling K. Brown tells us that there is something inevitably incomplete about our own individual perspective, and that if we at least try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we might be able to learn from other people’s experiences, from their insights and their mistakes, and transfer that learning to our own understanding of ourselves and the world.
From a very young age, we begin to develop our ideas, opinions and perspectives of reality, at first through some mix of our inherited disposition and the perspectives of our parents and our close friends, teachers and media sources (e.g. books, movies). We begin innocent, young, unexperienced and gullible, so of course, we at least partly mimic and follow the mentality of our immediate circle without thinking too much, even though many of the perspectives nearest to us may turn out to be biased and one-sided. But as we grow older, we start to see things not only from our own perspective and that of this tight circle but from the perspectives of others outside that circle as well.
For example, even if we are not ourselves Jewish, through education, we may learn about the suffering of the Jewish people in concentration camps during the Holocaust; we attempt, however imperfectly, to see through the eyes of those Jewish people. In the process, we also learn how some perspectives, such as those that were held by the Nazis, can be horrifically dangerous, leading a nation to scapegoat a vulnerable ethnic group. Our understanding of these perspectives can also help us to identify where and when they persist in our world today.
To offer a less extreme example, here in Montreal, when you walk down St-Catherine street and you see a man who appears homeless lying against a wall, a cup placed in front of him on the sidewalk for loose change, what is your perspective of him? Do you see someone who is simply lazy? Someone who would likely use the money for drugs or alcohol? That’s how some folks see homeless people: as lazy and wasteful. Maybe such judgmental people have never been homeless, or struggled with mental illness, as many homeless people do. But if we try to imagine a homeless person’s perspective, we might see that they are simply hungry and just want a small cup of coffee to keep warm through the cold winter night, or we might see that their kids are hungry, but they have no money, so that are asking for change in order to feed their family. And sometimes a little role reversal can change many things: the way we talk, the way we act and the way we think. Even if the only change is that we begin to offer a friendly smile to anyone asking for money on the street, or, to take the earlier example, if we begin vote, or even get more politically engaged as a first step in combating prejudice and hate, these small changes can add up across the actions of many people to make a significant difference.
We are often so consumed with our own point of view that we lose our curiosity and our compassion towards others. It is important to stay true to ourselves, but we also must try to walk in other people’s shoes, both to enlarge our own perspectives and to become a better version of ourselves.