Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Silencing Your Perspective

You can never see something from someone else's perspective. You can never have the experiences and context that colour their world. Thomas Nagel wrote the essay 'What is it like to be a bat' (quoted below) where he explains the challenge. Practising empathy is like practising meditation. It is in the process of bringing thoughts back to a point of focus - whether your breath, a candle, a sound or a thought - that exercises your ability to calm the craziness in your head. While we can't actually empathise fully, we can try.
'Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the world around by a system of reflected high-frequency sounds; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in the attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far) it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.'
Thomas Nagel
 Giant Golden Crowned Flying Fox
Source: Wikipedia

There are clearly differences between the level of empathy you can have for a bat and for a person. Within that the bigger the overlap in experiences and the more context is shared, the closer you can come to giving it a real shot. There are however limits. A man trying to think 'like a woman' is thinking 'like a man trying to think like a woman'. An adult child trying to imagine the world of his parents and the reason for the choices they made has decades of a fast changing world which they will never completely understand. If they did, they still can't strip away the context they have. They can't unexperience their experience.

One of the biggest obstacles to happiness I have come across is simply a complete befuddlement as to why other people don't think the way we do on the big stuff. We try understand their experiences but just can't understand why they can't 'see the light'. Deep down I am a sceptical, suspicious, evidence based person who prefers rational, logical, consistent explanations for things. I am starting to feel that this is not enough. Once you have enough of a foundation, perhaps you have to have 'faith' in your own ability to lean into other peoples worlds. You have to be okay with letting go of your own experiences and your own context to catch a glimpse. Clearly you need to have a strong BS detector, but in order to get to the juice of what others have seen, you don't want your BS detector flashing red and distracting you before they have exceeded their bull quota. Friends can provide this lifeline. Particularly really good friends who have known you for years. They can allow you to wander off and wonder off (I get those two mixed up - this time I want to use both). They can point out if you start losing yourself too much. They can bring you back having caught a glimpse and deepened your empathy.

Empathy isn't just about seeing from others perspective - it is about practising silencing yours.
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