If you could stand in someone else's shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?
This is an effective reminder of how little we actually know about the people we peripherally encounter in our lives. It resonates with the consistent indifference I experienced when navigating the medical system after I broke my shoulder. The shortcoming of this strategy is that it implies that we would all soften our hearts if we really knew the specific details about what others are going through. But what if we can't know? What if there isn't a drama driving the disinterest? What if the grouchy person you encounter is simply bored or even a bully?
What if we take this recommended approach a step further? Instead of needing to discover or create a backstory in order for us to erode these social and emotional walls, what if we simply remind ourselves that we can never truly know the subjective experience of another person and that regardless of what we're able to observe on the surface, we're all driven by the deep desire to be safe, happy, healthy, and comfortable.
From this perspective, we reduce the risk of accidently tipping over into pity and comparison. It's easy to shift from feeling sorry for ourselves into feeling sorry for someone else. This approach comes with a side of guilt as we feel badly for feeling bad when we discover someone who is worse off than us. It can be powerful to feel our own feelings while also acknowledging that others are busy feeling theirs—which have nothing to do with us.
There is some liberation in not having to crack the code of other people. Each encounter with a stranger provide an opportunity to gain a bit of intimacy with how our own thoughts and feelings mingle together to create tiny fictional portraits. We have an impressive ability to project our fears and insecurities onto the canvas of strangers. And when these impression resonate—look out. We assume they are true and act accordingly.
Intimacy with our thoughts and feelings means simply becoming more aware that the suffering we imagine others to be going through—or the evaluations of their actions at all—is a little "reality show" that we produce from a private, mostly subconscious palette of emotionally-flavored sensations in our own bodies along with the verbal and visual details percolating in our minds.
Of course, the approach I'm describing would be nearly impossible to communicate with an emotionally moving video. This is one of the challenges of sharing attentional fitness techniques. In order to illustrate them in action, we are forced to use specific examples. But any example we use carries an emotional valence. What we're really trying to communicate is the cultivation of an ability to emphasize the composition of experience in contrast to the default preoccupation we have with the narrative content—especially our evaluation or interpretation of the content.
In this approach, the situation of the other doesn't matter. We try to relinquish the requirement of a valid story before considering our common humanity. In this way, we are trying to develop an empathy that is not dependent on a set of conditions. This might sound like indiffierence, but it feels paradoxically like a much more generous and honest version of empathy. One that isn't so fragile that it instantly collapses when in our personal opinion, the backstory doesn't justify the behavior.
How would we treat each other if we accepted that we don't have access to every backstory and that we're all driven by the same basic desires regardless of the obervable evidence?