Parents are often the first and most important role models in our lives as it is usually their job to raise and teach their children the ways of the world; my mother is no different. My mother has been an incredibly influential light in my life and I am so thankful for her; she often forces me to think and reflect, and that is exactly what happened last night. As we were talking and arguing over my sister, age 18, I claimed that she is often rude and disrespectful to them; I believed that she spoke in ways I never would, comparing her actions to those of my own. Now it should be noted that my sister and I are polar opposites and in high school, we often clashed. My mother then said to me, "give her a break," explaining that she was in my successful shadow growing up; my mother argued that she was often compared to me: the athlete and the straight-A student. My response to this defensive notion was "That is such a bullsh*t excuse," as I have always seen my sister as successful, but in her own way. I played sports, but she acted; her grades were just fine, if not just like mine; she had a beautiful voice and could dance, which was a talent I never had, but I admired her for her abilities. I believed that the "growing up in my shadow" excuse was ridiculous because, to me, my sister shined in her own light; one different from my own. However, it was my mother's response which truly struck a chord, "You were never a middle child; You never experienced that comparison and, therefore, cannot believe that you would have acted any differently in her position growing up." This conversation - my mother's argument forced me to reflect on my personal experience and the powers of other assumptions I have made in my life.
Until you have lived a particular experience, you can never truly understand it; just as I, who has never been a middle child, could not possibly claim to understand that experience. Sure, I can empathize with those who have different experiences and obstacles, different from my own, but empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is not necessarily a shared experience. The moment you assume to know or understand completely an experience you have never lived means that you are making assumptions of their life; the moment you stereotype or assume the nature of a stranger, you are creating an image of them that could very well be completely untrue. My point is: do not write off someone else's experience or feelings in a particular situation, simply because you believe that in their situation or position that you would have acted differently. By doing so, you are applying what you have learned, what you have experienced in this unique life, and the lessons you have been taught into their experience; you are applying the skills you have learned through your life into their issue, obstacle, or experience. What if they never learned that skill you are applying? How can you assume that they have the same understanding as you at this point in their life? Those assumptions that 'they should know better' or that 'the solution to their problem is obvious' are assumptions which claim that they know or have experienced the same things that you have; an assumption that is simply irrational and impossible as everyone's life is uniquely their own. Another thing my mother has always said is even when you have no idea of the experience another is going through its important to "try walking in their shoes, to try and understand." Assumptions are dangerous; however, it is important to be empathetic. We should all try to be empathetic.
Empathy and understanding are not really the same thing; one is an attempt to understand, to feel, while has an undertone of knowledge. I believe that it is important to always try to understand; to be empathetic of those around you and strive to help. However, it is also important to not mistake "I know" with "I think." Another saying my mother has always encouraged is, "Say what you mean, and mean what you say; be honest;" therefore, when I relay advice, give my opinion, or simply talk to my friends I do my best to be particular with the words I choose to use. When I was younger, comforting a struggling friend, I often would say " I know how you feel," even when the situation they are going through is something I have never personally experienced. My mom has never had cancer, I live in a two-parent home, and I do not fear the police when I get pulled over. The impact of one's words often have a stronger effect than people usually attribute to them; someone's understanding of what they say can be interpreted far different than intended. I use to say " I know how you feel" when consoling a friend on an experience I have never gone through myself, but since then, since understanding the impact of words I have slightly altered that phrase. The new words I use in consolation are no longer "I know," but "I can imagine what you are going through" because I can try to relate; I can try to 'put myself in their shoes' and imagine this scenario, I can try to empathize with them, but I cannot claim to fully understand or know. I think that it is important for everyone to reflect on what they say and how: the words, their meaning, and the tone in which they are expressed.
I wrote this piece in order to bring awareness, so that people are encouraged to 'say what they mean, and mean what they say.' You cannot truly understand an experience or struggle someone has in their life without having experienced it yourself in their understanding of the issue; you cannot claim 'to know' when you have no knowledge of the situation as they understand it. I think it is important for people to be aware of this. However, I also think it is important to note that no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. A slip of one's tongue, a misuse of a word, may happen in this life and we should not pounce on a mistake by calling it a horrendous error or unforgivable act. Mistakes and misunderstanding can, and will, happen; however, having an awareness of an issue is crucial to combatting it. If you are not aware of your language, the words you choose, and the meaning behind them then it is easy for others to make and base assumptions about you from what has been said; furthermore, these assumptions could be drastically wrong and completely untrue, so being aware of what is said is important as words matter. I encourage everyone to try and understand, to empathize because without empathy there is no feeling among us. We must try to relate and get to know people for who they are because the moment we stop, we risk falling into a cycle of an understanding based on assumption as we try to relate what we know to what we see. My grandfather always says "That to assume something makes 'an ass out of you and me." When you make assumptions you automatically claim to know a part of someone that may not exist at all; it is not okay to claim to know something you don't, to assume in their shoes you would have acted completely differently, it is not okay to stereotype someone you do not know. It is not fair to place characteristics or stereotypes about people you have never met, or people struggling with an experience you have never gone through yourself. I believe that it is important to empathize with others, to try and gain some kind of understanding, but to never mistake "I know" with "I can imagine."