I’ll never know what it’s like to be starvation-level poor, wondering where my next meal will come from, and if I will, in fact, have a next meal.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be so hooked on a substance, so truly dependent on the chemicals it causes my body to release, that I’d do anything for another fix; anything at all to avoid the inevitable shakes and pain and depression that overtake me otherwise.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be morbidly obese, because of genetics or my own habits, to the point where the rest of society looks down on me, deciding who I am based on my silhouette and size of my waist rather than the content of my character.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be a minority, or a woman, or from any of the numerous other groups that are looked down upon, mistreated, judged, and pigeon-holed around the world. No matter how much I bend my mind and try to see things from their point of view, I can’t possibly understand. I can walk in their shoes, but I’ll never feel the pounding of the pavement through their callouses.
A quote that changes attribution depending on who you talk to goes something like this: “Be nice to people. Chances are they’re having a worse day than you.”
I like this quote, because it reminds me that no matter what I’m going through, someone else, somewhere, is going through something much worse than I can possibly imagine. It doesn’t make me happy that someone out there in having a bad day, of course, it just puts my own problems in perspective.
At the same time, it helps me remember that, in some cases, and in some contexts, I’m that other person. Sometimes — not often, thankfully, but sometimes — I’m the person on a given sidewalk having the really bad day, and the person walking toward me from the other direction has no idea, couldn’t have any idea, how bad my life is at that moment. They’ve never seen the world from my point of view, and their lack of understanding is not a personal affront, but rather a lack of comprehension. He doesn’t lack empathy: he lacks what I lack, which is the ability to thoroughly empathize.
In addition to remembering that I have things pretty good, I try to remember that even when I don’t, and even when the rest of the world seems intent on not giving me a break, I should try not to hold it against them.
Because they’ll never know what it’s like to be me.
Update: April 12, 2017
I wonder if someday we’ll develop empathy machines; devices that allow us to understand where other people come from, how they feel, and why.
There’s already speculation that things like virtual reality could help us empathize, as our games could help us more fully and immersively experience the situations we’re plopped into, and that could mean games that walk us through what it’s like to be another person. We could actually experience, to some degree, the day another person had, and perhaps understand them a little better as a result.
I don’t know if that would be the optimal way to make this kind of interpersonal empathy more graspable, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.