Sometimes we need to look at life upside own or inside out! We all see things from our own perspective, with our values about right and wrong. We may discretely temper our public proclamations about the way the world should be. All the while, our biggest blind spot is probably presuming we see clearly, accurately, rightly.
Case in point: the disheveled guy standing at the end of the freeway exit holding a cardboard sign. Before I’m even close enough to read his printed text I have come to all sorts of conclusions. Many of these are moral judgments about the man’s character, most of them harsh. And, I already know how I will pretend not to see him.
Experts say that genuine empathy — being able to truly see the world from the perspective of the other — is really quite rare and a very sophisticated moral exercise, something that takes a degree of emotional maturity many do not possess. Scratch just a bit below the veneer and much of what we do is still really “all about us.”
We tout trite phrases about walking in another person’s shoes. We may even volunteer at food pantries or tutor immigrants. This is all good, even praiseworthy. But can we ever really get into the other person’s skin, see the world with their eyes, feel what life deals them with their heart?
We are given a ubiquitous invitation — that guy at the end of the exit ramp! They are only one of many opportunities we have to look at life upside down, inside out or from the other side! Of course, we resist such a challenge. It’s hard. Even more it may threaten our worldview, our closely held values and expose ways we’d have to change.
Here’s my fantasy… after sprouting a four-day beard growth, I get into the clothes I reserve for yard work or painting the house. With “Homeless. Please help!” printed on cardboard I would go stand at the Xerxes exit of the Crosstown freeway for three hours during the evening commute.
It remains just my fantasy. Who among us would do such a thing? Could we even imagine ourselves doing such a thing? Even if I overcame my resistance, I’m pretty sure it would still be about “me” — will my neighbor’s see me? What would they think? What if I got assaulted? Even if I somehow took the risk, I’m sure I’d still be light-years away from genuine empathy — really getting inside the skin of the person whose desperation places him in this position.
Yet, even such arm-chair speculation yields something… Perhaps it’s more than desperation at work on the exit ramp. Perhaps it takes courage to stand there with cardboard sign in hand absorbing the moral judgment of drivers returning home from work. Perhaps it takes trust to presume our needs will be met because others still care enough.
Yes, there are all sorts of nay-sayers, objections and skeptics. “They are imposters! Get a job! They will just spend it on drugs. There are agencies who take care of this sort of thing.” The excuses are endless.
Again, we do well to look at things inside-out, upside-down, get out from behind our own skin for once, open ourselves to the genuine experience of the other, apply the very same moral standard — both critical and gracious — to ourselves as we do to the man holding the cardboard sign.
Someone once said, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)