While discussing my previous post (Single Scenarios) with a friend, she remarked how we can get so mired in our own experience that we can’t–or won’t–relate to another person’s situation. She credited it to our lack of imagination. We either don’t take the time or haven’t developed our imaginations enough to truly consider what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes. But to truly love other people, we need to put in the time and effort to try and imagine what life would feel like in their situation. To be able to do that, we need to exercise our imaginations.
First, we need to imagine ourselves into others’ shoes in a general sense (meaning people we may not know or may not be in relationship with). We are so quick to judge other people’s choices, actions, and even feelings. We see a news story and criticize a person’s response to a situation. We see a stranger in a predicament and quickly decide it’s their own fault. We fault a coworker for letting their responsibilities slip during a hard time. That type of judgment takes us nowhere. But when we imagine what it might be like to be in their situation, we can also imagine what might be helpful and loving to them.
We also need to use our imaginations in a specific sense, meaning people with whom we are in relationship. When loved ones tell us we have hurt them, we often want to blame them for being hurt. After all, we “didn’t mean” to hurt them, so why are they being so sensitive? We don’t have to understand why they are hurt, but we can imagine how they are hurting. Certainly, it is difficult task, but if someones tells us they hurt, it is the least we can do to try to imagine what it feels like.
Jesus taught that the second greatest commandment is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matthew 22). Love your neighbor as if they were you. To realize what that means, we have to imagine what it would be like to actually be that other person. I was surprised recently–on two separate occasions with two different friends–when, hearing my words about my own experiences, each friend began to cry. To one friend, I was explaining a particular hardship; to the other, I relayed a story about an exciting and encouraging experience. I could hardly believe that how I felt could be so real to them that it would move them to tears. They must have incredible imaginations!
How do we develop our imaginations? I don’t have any credentials to justify in speaking on this, but I do have some ideas, if you’d like to consider them. Mostly, to find fodder for your imagination, you have to seek new experiences. Meet different types of people. Listen to their stories. Turn off your filter of what you’re “supposed” to think about them, and just listen. Put yourself in new situations, even when it makes you uncomfortable. Read books and articles about real people (or even fictional people) who have had different experiences than you. The more you expand your own experiences, the better you can imagine what it would be like to be another person, and the better you can love and care for them. (If you want more ideas from people with “credentials,” see this article: Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People).
By now, you’re probably thinking of another word for imagining yourself in someone else’s position: Empathy. You know, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (thanks, Google). No, you will never completely understand the way another person’s life affects them (nor they yours), and the process will be complicated more often than not. But there is so much for you both to gain in the trying.