From the professor’s desk …
I’ve become my dad’s full-time caregiver, and he lives in a small, rural town that is quite isolated from the bustle of life that I’m accustomed to. Things are quiet here, and move slowly. There’s no high-speed internet, no 24-hour stores (the one small grocery store in the village closes at 6 p.m.), and people live their lives at a slow and quiet pace.
And that’s great.
But I’ve noticed something; If you mention something that the locals have not experienced, you’ll often get the response, “Well, I’ve never heard of that.” A popular movie, a fashion trend, a political viewpoint, whatever it might be, the response “Well, I’ve never heard of that” is spoken in a skeptical tone that indicates disbelief. If I’ve never heard of it, then it doesn’t exist.
At times, I’ve been annoyed at this (and tempted to respond with “I’m not lying to you”), but on reflection, I think we all do this, especially when it comes to dealing with social difference.
You say there’s poverty in my city? You say there’s institutionalized racism in my workplace? You tell me my favorite politician is corrupt? “Well, I’ve never heard of that,” and therefore it must not be true. Or, to put it another way, if I haven’t experienced it for myself, then it doesn’t exist.
We all know that’s not true. So what’s the next step? It’s a form of trust.
When someone tells their story, and it’s different from mine, I can start from a place of trust and believe that their experience is authentic. I can believe that their spouse is abusive, or their workplace discriminatory, or they can’t afford food, without experiencing any of those things firsthand. This trust, this belief, is the first step in empathy. If I ever want to be able to put myself in someone else’s shoes, I must begin with accepting their account of their own experience.
Let’s listen to each other with open minds.