June 16, 2014

In His or Her Shoes

Something I love (and sometimes hate) about living in a city is the variety of people I encounter: businessmen and women, hipsters, undergrads, homeless people and tourists and everyone in between. Many people I simply pass by on the street, but occasionally someone will do something annoying: they’ll talk too loudly or bump into me because they aren’t paying attention or say something rude for no apparent reason. 

Even if you don’t live in a large city, you may travel and have to deal with grumpy fellow passengers (or maybe you are the grumpy passenger), or you encounter strangers through Facebook and the blogs that you read. 

Modern life now puts us frequently in contact with people we know nothing about, and I think the distance between us, both literal and figurative, can make it difficult to have empathy for each other. It takes work to have compassion on the fellow commuter who is cutting in line at eight in the morning or the acquaintance who is posting disagreeable diatribes on Facebook. These people have histories we do not know and may be facing problems we cannot imagine. But we should try. 

Love requires a bit of imagination. It requires imagining another person’s life in the kindest possible light. (David Foster Wallace covers this territory pretty well in his graduation speech, This is Water.)

I’m thinking about this after a wedding celebration my wife and I attended this past weekend. We didn’t know anyone very well so we had to strike up conversations with strangers, with varying levels of success. Some people were friendly. Others seemed to have no desire to talk to us. Or, I thought, maybe they were shy. Maybe I shouldn’t judge them. I used to be the person at the party who was difficult to talk to, not because I didn’t want to talk, but because I was very shy. 

We are often thrown into makeshift communities, whether it be at wedding or on a crowded train or at church. We do not hand-pick these communities, but we still must love others as best we can. The only way to navigate these situations without descending into cheap judgment is to imagine the lives of those around us in the kindest way we can—the grumpy passenger may have stayed up late with a sick child, the angry parishioner may have a long history of suffering we know nothing about, the unfriendly person at the party may just be shy. 

Maybe not, of course, and we shouldn’t let others take advantage of us, but we will all do better to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and then treat them as we would want to be treated.