Through a different lens: A lesson in empathy

Editor’s note. This appeared on the blog of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird

We’ve all heard the importance of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, but is this something we actually make an effort to do? One of the things I began to notice as I became involved with the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR) was a shift in the way I saw people around me. While I had always considered myself to be someone who cares for others, I was often completely unaware that those around me were experiencing some form of need. From the young, flustered cashier at the grocery store and to the quiet man working at the gas station, to the homeless man at the side of the road, I learned that everyone has a story. I began to place myself in their shoes and walk around in them and try to imagine what they may be going through. Even if they may appear to have their lives together, it is very likely that their lives are not nearly as picture-perfect as they may seem.

Doing pro-life activism has shown me the brokenness in our world. I have encountered countless people whose lives have been ripped apart by the hurt they endure. Abusive parents, sexual assault, broken homes, … the list goes on and on. Once, while doing activism, I talked to a student on a university campus who confided in me that his mother had had an abortion before he was born. He told me that if she had not had that abortion, he would not have been born because she got pregnant with him shortly after the abortion.

While part of him acknowledged the reality of what abortion does to the pre-born, he still struggled with the idea that abortion is wrong because of what the implications would be for him and his family. If abortion really does end the life of another human being, then it means that his mother allowed his older sibling to be killed. Not only that, but if not for her abortion, he would not even exist in the first place. What a hard thing to grapple with.

Only when we place ourselves in the shoes of others and try to imagine what their life is like can we begin to understand and help them. One essential part of this is shifting the focus from one of judgement to one of understanding, regardless of whether or not we agree with their lifestyle choices. While there is nothing wrong with recognizing that certain behaviors are wrong, focusing too much on the wrongness of them can prevent us from helping others.

I have been forced to wrestle with the reality that everyone I meet is a unique human being with a purpose, created in God’s image, and therefore deserves to be loved and respected. I have learned that God has a purpose in bringing each person I meet into my life, both to challenge and encourage me, and for me to challenge and encourage them.

Until you care enough about a person to try to really understand them, you cannot help them. The people we meet are not projects to make us feel good about ourselves, nor are they boxes to check off some “to-do” list. They are human beings who are just as valuable as we are, and they deserve to be treated as such. You cannot help someone you do not care about, and you cannot care about someone you do not try to understand.