Cole Feldman | Monday, January 23, 2017
On an abnormally beautiful January Saturday in South Bend, six of us in the car headed for Rum Village. In the backseat with beautiful people, listening to beautiful music. I smiled, watching Maggie’s hand dance out the window. Her fingers leapt and twirled around a man on the street corner holding a cardboard sign: “homeless anything helps.”
The car stopped at a red light. It wasn’t my first time seeing someone ask for help, and in most ways this time wasn’t any different. But something about the happiness I was experiencing with my friends, contrasted with his struggle, struck me as unfair.
At first I wanted to reach out the car window to give him a dollar, then I thought it would be better if I could just give him some of my happiness.
Then the light turned green. We drove away. I gave him nothing. He gave me a thought, which I pushed out of my mind. I didn’t want to distract from the happiness of the trip. I forgot about him and focused again on the people and the music in the car.
We spent the whole day in the woods navigating the trails, climbing trees, laughing, playing and having fun. Then we got hungry, so we left for home.
On the way back, we passed through the same intersection, and there was the same man at the same intersection. I saw that, in addition to his sign, he was holding for me the same thought that I had pushed out of my mind earlier, and the thought was this:
How can I be myself when so many other perspectives exist?
I’m in the car with friends and music and feel happy; I look at the homeless man and feel sad. But what about places where I’m not presently, and people I don’t see?
What about all the human perspectives on earth, and all the perspectives that have existed, and will exist? Why should I not feel all these perspectives? Why should I only feel my own?
Last semester I wrote a piece for the Observer called ‘Self-reliance.’ The idea was essentially that we are alone in the sense that nobody can ever truly see the world through our eyes.
I wrote, “Your sadness isn’t her sadness, because the other sees a different shade of purple than the purple you see. Nobody knows what you mean when you say it’s beautiful… our experience is different: Only I feel my feels; only you think your thoughts.”
But of course this is not entirely true. It presents an incomplete view of human nature, like Thoreau was only ever going to learn so much about himself by going out into the woods alone.
Because man is a social animal. We share, communicate and build relationships. We are not alone; we can empathize, visualize a walk in another’s shoes and understand their point of view.
Yes, my purple is different than yours; but we at least share an understanding of the concept of colors and that some colors contrast with others in order to make our vision possible.
And yes, my sadness is different than yours. When Max’s grandma died, I could not say, “I feel exactly what you feel.” But I could say, “I have a grandma too, I love her very much and can imagine how hard it would be to lose someone so close to you.”
Empathy is selflessly egocentric — yes, this is an oxymoron. Because in reality I think true and genuine empathy is actually a paradox. As much as it is selfless it is also self-centered in the sense that the only faculties you have to understand others are those with which you are endowed yourself.
Your perspective is inevitably through your own lens, your own nature and nurture. So even when you empathize, you are seeing the perspective of another, but you are seeing it first through your own perspective — like looking through one window, beyond which is another window that you also see through.
In this sense it is impossible to empathize perfectly; you cannot fully take on another’s perspective without sacrificing your own.
The highest form of human empathy lies balanced in between rigorous self-awareness and an understanding of others so far-reaching that it risks your own personal identity.
For as much as we are different, we are the same. I know you because I know myself; we don’t feel or think in the same way, but I know what emotions and thoughts you speak of, because I have felt and thought something similar before.
That balance, between self and other, is the true challenge of empathy: to be ourselves and commit deeply to our own lives, while also remaining intimately aware and seeking to understand those around us — not only our closest friends or just those relationships that benefit us, but also the local homeless man and even the suffering stranger you’ll never meet.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.