“If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.”
When Matt Haig wrote the above in his book “The Humans,” he was not only speaking about the aesthetic of physical beauty, but rather, the totality of each individual human being. “The Humans” is an exploration of human nature from the point of view of an extraterrestrial visitor. As great science fiction often does, it tells us a tale that is ostensibly about something alien, but that is, in reality, a tale about ourselves.
All too often these days, we humans seem distressingly quick to judge other people through the jaded prism of identity politics, deeply ingrained preconceived notions, or through some pre-established criteria of what constitutes a person worthy of the time to know and befriend. Sadly, the willingness or self-discipline to withhold judgement is all too frequently absent these days. Lost are the abilities to see others with an open mind and heart, or to take the time to understand from where each individual person came, or how they arrived to become the person they are today.
In other words, we appear to have lost the ability to employ empathy when it comes to our fellow human beings. Empathy is narrowly defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” More broadly, it means the ability to see a person as more than their physical appearance, their place of origin and chosen career, their declared political affiliation, sex, religion, or race. It is to understand that person based on their unique and defining lived experience. It is the ability to share in the emotions, feelings, and perspectives of that person, even for just a brief time.
This kind of empathy — the intellectual and emotional willingness to really attempt to know someone before deciding on where they might fit within your own proprietary mental system of categorizing individuals — appears to have escaped us as a society. We are quick to judge. We are quick to categorize. We are quick to write off those who do not meet certain criteria and quick to embrace those who do upon a superficial first glance. We are quick to condemn those who utter unacceptable phrases, or who fail to fully embrace beliefs we hold dear.
Examples might be illustrative. Consider for yourself your likely initial reaction if you were to meet the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL; a foreign-born nun struggling at the checkout in a small midwestern Walmart; a driven, veteran journalist for a national news outlet weighing her next career moves; an Afghan interpreter newly-arrived to live in the United States following the fall of their country; a high-level executive moving up within the banking and finance industry.
We all, almost certainly, have preconceived notions of each of these people. The widow is likely heartbroken and consumed by the grief of having lost her spouse. The nun is certainly a fish out of water, nervous, and possibly overwhelmed trying to adjust to a new life in the Midwest, where she cannot even seem to figure out paying for her groceries at the self-checkout. The journalist is obviously on a career path defined by hard work and smart choices, and is maybe not to be fully trusted as she is always hunting a story. The interpreter is surely pro-American and anti-jihad and ecstatic to start a new life here. The finance executive likely comes from a life of privilege and has rarely known hardship.
Lots of us might end our interactions with these newly-met people content to dwell within the bubble of our rarely disturbed preconceived notions. Whether these judgements cast them in a positive or negative light, it clouds our empathy and our ability to relate with them. We might think, “I cannot fathom this widow’s grief, and thus cannot engage her beyond the limits of that tragedy.” Or, we might decide, “This is a journalist, she is inherently suspicious, and what does she know anyway about telling my story?” Or, “This interpreter loves America and thus hates radical Islam and is unequivocally overjoyed to be here.”
All of those judgements could be wrong, to one degree or another. It could be that the widow enjoys a joyful and unadulterated view of life and its experiences, determined to make the most of every day. The nun finds contentment in her status as a newcomer, and a spiritually invigorating wonderment at her new surroundings. The journalist lives with the scars of an abusive and failed marriage. The interpreter lives with the sadness of having failed to secure a safe and secure homeland for his family, and a deep Islamic faith that he must now work to fit into his newly-adopted American home. The finance executive overcame criminally negligent parents, and a childhood darkened by crimes committed by those who were supposed to love and nurture her to arrive at her exalted position within the world’s richest country.
One’s lack of willingness to go beyond the initial impressions of each of these individuals acts as a barrier to a true understanding of that person, and thus a barrier to empathy. How can you understand and share their feelings if you do not take the time to understand from where they came? If you fail to engage with them, to get to know them, to ask them about their lived experience, or to try to put yourself in their shoes, can you ever really know them? Beyond that, without knowing their story, can you ever really empathize with them, and see them as the unique and beautiful people that they undoubtedly are?
The answer is certainly no. Failing to then know them — given a possible lack of interest, time, or maybe even downright hostility to the idea — cascades into a failure of understanding and empathy. It is much easier to write off someone you don’t know. It is easier to discount their worth, their identity, and their perspective if you do not have to bother with their background, or their history.
Maybe that is why we do it so often. Maybe we prefer living in our own limited pseudo-reality, where everyone belongs in a certain box, and they act/believe/live in certain prescribed ways within our own minds. That certainly makes the world easier to understand. What it fails to do, though, is give an accurate and enlightening glimpse of just how complicated, messy, complex, and beautiful humanity is. The world is populated by individuals, each with their own story. Taking the time to learn some of those stories, with an open mind and an even more accepting heart, will never fail to make you feel more in touch with your own humanity.
Give others — and perhaps just as importantly, yourself — that gift of empathy. It is never too late to start.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
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- Exclusive: Spec Ops Vets on why we must save Afghan Interpreters
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