Thursday, 28 October 2010

Somebody Else's Shoes

A Pair Of Shoes, 1886 Vincent Van Gogh

What would it be like to live in somebody else's shoes? I never tire of asking myself this and trying to look at a situation from another perspective. Isn't this what being human is all about? Each of us playing a character in the game of life. According to psychologists, our ability to understand another person's circumstances, point of view, thoughts and feelings is an automated response. We are programmed to reach out and extend empathy, as it is otherwise termed, to both human and non-human kind. Could this be so when some days it seems this very quality is lacking? Is empathy an illusion? All in the mind of our altruist egos...

I liken empathy to pick 'n' mix. Yes please to the fizzy cola bottles and white chocolate mice, but no thanks to the flying saucers. Similarly people pick and choose who or what is deserving of their empathy. Pictures of natural disasters force us to sit up and take notice of the plight of others from around the globe.“Those poor people” we say, whilst watching nightly broadcasts and flinging money and impractical aid at the problem, but is this true understanding? I remain unconvinced by this mass sentiment. Can we ever really walk in others' shoes?

To be empathetic surely implies that all beings have an equal right to be understood, regardless of their actions, or whether they're animal, vegetable or mineral. I jest, but if a person commits a wrong, judged by you or in the eyes of the law, they are still entitled to a fair hearing. Yes, actions do speak louder than words, but what was the motive? There are always two sides to the story as the saying goes, even if the circumstances or lifestyle portrayed is not to your own. Judgments are too often made in haste and based only on an initial impression or appearance, and what we think we would have done in the same scenario. The truth is you don't know. Nobody does. Until you're actually in a similar predicament it's all guesswork. Condemning the opinions and actions of others is undoubtedly easier than reflecting on your own. In doing so, are we weaving a tangled web of deception? Appearing to be empathetic, but continuing to place our self-interests ahead of others? Pampered by the state, are we now more concerned with taking rather than receiving?

In these modern times, it would be difficult not to agree with the latter. This is not true in every instance, but how many of us have walked past incidents where we could have offered a helping hand? Some unashamedly stop and stare, listen to an exchange in uncomfortable silence, or blindly ignore the obvious, even if it's a little old woman struggling to get a tin off a supermarket shelf. Getting involved means taking a risk and cuts into our previous time. Any act performed out of concern and kindness has become a risky and unrewarding move. 

How do we restore a greater empathy for others? By removing the indifference we feel towards those who look and think another way? Veggies and vegans are surely included in the category of “misunderstood”. Considered to be an excessively sensitive and sentimental bunch, research ironically suggests that we do indeed readily emphasize with others – both humans and animals. If empathy is to evolve with humankind, isn't this one more point in a vegetarian's favour? I like to think so. Vegetarianism and empathy go together like a new pair of shoes.