As thinking and feeling creatures, we tend to carry with us a collection of emotions that often directly correlate to thoughts in our heads.
Take a minute and think back to an important happening or event in your life, e,g,. your child’s graduation, your wedding, the birth of niece, that major car accident you were in, getting fired, getting blamed, etc. The emotions that might accompany these are pride, excitement, hope, fear, anger, and shame, and to be fair, depending on the circumstances, those “common” emotions may vary.
Regardless of how your felt at those moments, it is likely you felt something because when there is an event of significance, we–as thinking and feeling creatures–encode that moment in time in a memory that “sticks” better if both thought and emotion are paired in the making of said memory.
Now consider those times in your life when you’ve heard about another person’s “important happening.” It is likely that you layered your own emotional veneer on that person’s experience. For example, you hear about your cousin getting married and you think, “Oh how wonderful for him” because you had a fantastic wedding day followed by years of marital bliss, or your friend tells you about she was fired and you think, “I wonder what she did wrong” because the time you got fired you were seriously under-performing and deserved to be let go.
But is it possible that your cousin is getting married because in a drunk stupor he impregnated his not-so-fantastic girlfriend who is, in essence, forcing him into marriage? Not so “wonderful” for him now, huh? Could it be that your friend got fired for complaining about sexual harassment and, in fact, did “nothing wrong”?
When we think and feel for ourselves, we have licence to pair any number emotions to our own existential experience. When we hear about the experiences of others, we have no entitlement to presume we know how that person encodes her experience of the event.
The idea of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is endorsed to encourage compassion.
And yet, on the flip side of that adage, when we teach our children to be considerate, we often say things like, “Treat your friend in the same way you’d like to be treated.”
These are opposite approaches. From one side of our sage-like mouths we say, “Step into that person’s life and try to see things from her perspective,” from the other side, we say, “Think of yourself, and then behave toward others in the way you want people to behave toward you.”
It’s very confusing for children, who are trying to navigate social relationships, to have to apply two opposing techniques. What one works better? Does either work at all?
I think a childhood full of this fragmented approach to “understanding others” and “being a good friend” results in adults believing themselves to be in a position to assume how others feel and more often than not, those assumptions are wrong.
Not all graduations, weddings, and births are hope-endorsing events. Some graduations mark the end of something bad rather than the start of something good. Some weddings memorialize the end of a life better lived independent and the start of resent and possible violence. Not all babies are healthy, fully-formed, or even breathing when they arrive.
A major car accident could be a life-changing event that leaves the driver both an amputee and a champion for making every day count. A pink slip and demand to “clear out your desk by five o’clock” could be the springboard into a career of meaningfulness and reward. Being the scapegoat in a scandal can result in the blamed party channeling her energies into a cathartic and outspoken creative outlet.
In a world where we endorse to our children that “everyone is different” and “everyone is special,” we ought to hold fast to those aphorisms and regard the adult lives of others with the a respect for individuality and uniqueness.
We ought to remember that shoes come in different sizes and styles, and there are some of us who may simply prefer to go barefoot.