The only true experiences, whether mental or emotional that we can rely on are our own. The only stories that we can understand fully our our own stories and the events that transpired in our lives. While we can understand stories that happen to others there are always bits and pieces that we either don’t know about or are simply beyond our level of comprehension. So when it comes time to try to understand the viewpoints and motivations of others, we naturally place ourselves in their shoes, but while we do so, we remain in our own bodies with its collection of feelings, thoughts and memories and apply them to the story.
While we say we emphathize with their plight and problems we usually fail to understand why they are in such a situation to begin with. The easiest ones for us to understand are situations that are truly out of anyone’s personal control. That is why there is a wave of sympathy and charity in situations that involve natural disasters as we can fully understand that there are things that simply happen for no reason or fault of the individual.
For situations that are more and more in control of the individual we tend to add more and more judgmental attributes and viewpoints into the equation. Let’s say there are three men with three houses, each house burned down to the ground. Each man asks for help to rebuild their house.
The first man Mr. White had his house burn down when it was suddenly struck by lightning. His neighbors and friends look at the burnt remains of his home and help him dig through the ashes to help find any mementos or salvageable remains in the rubble. A collection is made and many people who don’t even know Mr. White contribute what they can to help Mr. White rebuild his house.
We see stories like this often as millions of people are willing to help out those struck by natural disasters or circumstances that are out of their control. We imagine what we would do in those situations as we can picture them happening to us and hope that the same outpouring of help would be available to us. We are easily capable of projecting ourselves into those situations and can empathize fully and openly without judgment.
Mr. Blue’s house burned down as well. Instead of a natural disaster Mr. Blue accidentally started a kitchen fire while making himself some bacon. Mr. Blue normally doesn’t cook and is a nice enough fellow so his neighbors and friends come to help dig through the rubble and even start a collection to help him through. While they help him, most of his neighbors and friends think to themselves ‘Boy what a silly fool Mr. Blue is, he should have known better than to try cooking bacon.’ Others read the story in the local news and have a chuckle over how Mr. Blue tried to put out a bacon fire by throwing water on it. In the end Mr. Blue does receive some help from those close to him, but not so much from the general public.
Finally, we have the story of Mr. Red. His house burned down as well. He had gotten in a fight with his wife and in a moment of rage simply decided to burn his home down. As the ashes and rubble cools Mr. Red is left alone to dig through the remains. His friends and neighbors avoid him because they cannot comprehend what would drive someone to do something so insane. His story in the news garners mainly ridicule except from the few people that read it that may have felt the same rage that Mr. Red did that fateful day.
In the end all three men lost their house, but the amount of empathy and sympathy that they were able to receive was not based on the loss of the house which was the same in all three situations, but whether or not people were able to understand the circumstances and place themselves not only in the shoes of Mr. White, Blue and Red but in the lives of them as well.
We tend to empathize and sympathize with those that have experienced the same or similar situations in life that we have gone through or can worry about ourselves, but to truly understand the actions and motivations of a person we need to take another step forward and remove ourselves from the equation.