The other night, a friend and I went out to a Korean restaurant. As I scanned the menu for its most appealing vegetarian options, my friend began to inhale all of the starters that the restaurant put in front of us. I picked a dish, something with vegetables and fried rice, and began to dig into the starters. After trying out a few, my throat began to feel itchy. Then the food came, and after a few bites, the itchiness increased and my lips became a little puffy—this was an obvious allergic reaction. I asked the waitress if they used sesame oil, one of a few things I’m allergic to, and she said yes. As they were switching my dish (they were super cool about it), my friend said, “Sorry, man. You know, I never have to think about whether something is cooked with sesame oil, or whether something has a little meat in it.” My friend’s unnecessary, but kind, apology struck a chord within me. I never have to think about whether something is cooked with sesame oil, or whether something has a little meat in it.
His words got me thinking about how often we are involuntarily ignorant to the situations, feelings, and experiences of others. Think about it, how often do we say, “If I were them, I would have done so-and-so,” or “I can’t understand how anyone could act/ live/ think like that.”
Placing ourselves in the positions of others is one of the hardest things to do in life. How could one possibly understand what another is going through, if they have never gone through it themselves, or if they have no idea what it means to live, breathe, cry, and bleed in the body of another? The example with my friend never, up to that point, having considered the types of oil something is made in is just one of the infinite things that he has most likely never considered, yet that I think about all of the time. And I know that there are thousands upon thousands of things that he has experienced, thought about, and felt, which I have never, and possibly will never, consider.
So where does this leave us? If it’s so difficult to place ourselves in the positions of others, why try or why care? Well, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It may become easier if we approach people, and situations, with as few preconceived notions and misconceptions as possible. To do this, we need to strip ourselves of the things that make us us, even if just for a second: Personal problems, experiences, opinions, and facts of life. Through becoming blank slates, free of judgment, we enable ourselves to see life through the eyes, mind, and maybe even heart, of another.
But there is also be another way. And this way entails bringing our problems, experiences, opinions, and facts with us when facing different people and situations. Depending on who you are, this may be harder or easier than the first approach. With this method, we bring all that is our self with us, but realize that who and what we are is no better, or worse, than the person or situation that we’re facing. We see that we are who we are, that they are who they are, and that from a certain perspective, all is the same. We have had different experiences, but instead of hindering us, we can embrace the differences between us and know that our way isn’t the only way.
One point of all of this is to make ourselves better equipped to deal with the other and the different. Too often are people afraid to face the unknown, which causes a large amount of problems when someone is actually forced to encounter something outside of themselves, or the things that they’re familiar with.
A more selfish, and personally beneficial, point is that when we come to better understand others, we begin to explore our own depths. Take a second to realize that the only way you know who you are is through contrasting yourself with other. You know that you are a male because there are females, that you are blonde because there are redheads, that you drive quickly because others drive slowly, etc. The list is only limited by the connections of our universe, which essentially means that it is infinite.
Self-acceptance, love, and understanding are three of the most powerful things that a person can gain. And through placing ourselves in the positions of others, even if just once, we can turn conflict into compassion, unknown into understanding, and strange into similar. Especially within ourselves.