Many people will have heard the proverb about putting yourself in someone else's shoes, but it is most often not taken very seriously. It is seen to be clichéd.
However, when the meaning behind it is closely examined it takes on significance and becomes something that can make an important change in how we treat one another. It can help us develop empathy and be able to 'love our neighbour as ourself' as Jesus commands too.
The proverb is not just talking about seeing someone else's views or understanding their feelings but even more than that—putting yourself in someone else's situation: feeling what it is like for them and imagining how you would feel if you were in their situation.
It is, in short, talking about the ability to empathise, and feel compassion, for others. It is not mere sympathy—just feeling sorry for the person but deeper than that. It is being able to relate to them because you begin to understand what their situation is like and you begin to feel some of their pain, sorrow, and joy.
See the individual
One of the greatest causes of apathy over people's crises is that we cannot relate to them.
When we hear about things like the millions of AIDS orphans throughout African countries, we are often not moved to feel much compassion or sorrow for the people because they are, as the saying goes, "out of sight, out of mind." There is as well the fact that we generally cannot relate to them very well; they are just a mass of people on the other side of the world.
Yet, once you get to know a person from a country afflicted with AIDS or even someone who has the disease themselves, the awfulness of the disease quickly comes into plain view.
Suddenly, you see someone you care about and know as an individual suffering because of it, and as their friend you feel their pain.
As well as being able to relate to and empathise with another, it is also important to be able to focus on an individual as one person.
Take a moment to reflect
A prevalent example of this not happening is during war. With armies we tend to see only the big picture: thousands of soldiers going off to war killing each other and people around them.
But, if we take a moment to single out one soldier from the mass and reflect on how they feel, they go from simply being part of an anonymous killing machine to a person who has humanity.
We see them as they are: someone like us, who has many different aspects to themselves. We see that they are a brother—who is missed, a son—who is worried over, a father—who is yearned for, and, most importantly, we see that they are a human being with fears and hopes, dreams and aspirations too.
Taking a moment to reflect stops us seeing them as a statistic and helps us to see the common humanity we all share.
Understanding breeds compassion
Likewise, if we can relate to others we are more likely to want to help them.
Often we do not even realise how things we do or say affect others because we fail to understand them and see the effect of our words or actions. If we stop and put ourselves in the other person's shoes, so to speak, we are often able to see a lot more clearly and gather a lot of insight from this perspective.
Understanding breeds compassion; it is much more difficult to empathise and feel compassion for a person if we know nothing about them. But if we are willing to make the effort to get to know and understand others we are much better equipped to be compassionate and willing to support them throughout their difficulties.
Empathy breeds love
Jesus saw every person as an individual and he knows all of us intimately. He also desires that we reach out and love each other—near and far.
For, as the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates, there are no limits on those we are meant to have compassion for. Our neighbour could live next door to us or they could live half the world over.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew chapter 22, verses 37–40).
Loving other people is the second most important thing we are called to do as Christians, and empathy breeds love.
However, as with everything in life, we need to ask for God's help in developing truly empathetic hearts that are filled to overflowing with the love he has given us, the love which enables us to love others because he loved us first (1 John chapter 4, verse 19).
Jessica McPherson lives with her best friend and husband, Eoin and their family of rescue animals in Christchurch. She loves reading, writing, photography and scrapbooking but most of all sharing God's love and truth with a hurting world. Jessica is particularly passionate about encouraging children and building them up in gospel truth.
Jessica McPherson's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/jessica-mcpherson.html