food, farming, friends and family: a meditation on chosen simplicity and (in)voluntary complications – life.

Cultivate Empathy

So I’ve got this theory: I think empathy could solve all of the world’s problems.

In coming to this all-too-general conclusion, I’ve decided to try to stretch and strengthen my empathetic muscles – to challenge myself to see and feel from others’ perspectives.

And guess what? It’s frickin’ difficult!

It seems particularly hard to do when I’m dealing with someone or something I really care about, an issue I’m invested in. Most times I find myself giving it the old college try and then slipping back into my own mindset (which is occasionally equipped with some harsh judgments). Because instead of trying to understand what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, it’s easier to tell her that she’s walking all wrong – or she’d do better if she just sprung for some decent footwear. Maybe, in our more philanthropic moments, we’ll offer her our shoes. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, right?

Don’t get me wrong – the Golden Rule as we know it has a lot going for it and its heart appears to be in the right place. But empathy it is not. Sorry if I’m carrying the shoe metaphor too far, but my size 12’s probably aren’t going to fit into your hand-me-downs. And vice versa.

This is where the idea of a new Golden Rule comes in. I remember when Nicole first told me about the concept years ago when we were in college, and it’s an idea that I think about often. Instead of treating others as we would like to be treated, the new Golden Rule suggests that we Treat others as they would treat themselves. And whether you’re a nation with a tendency towards imperialistic politics or someone trying to navigate her family dynamic, that is no easy task. A complicated one, too, when issues of morality are entwined – and when are they not?

It seems worthwhile though, if for no other reason than it creates an opportunity to realize how much grey area there is in a world that so many people are trying to paint black and white. If you’re not this, you’re that. It’s not that simple; it never has been. And empathy seems to be a chance to see that there are always more than two sides to every story – if we’d just stop skimming the book.

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