The view from other people’s shoes

September 24, 2005 at 11:12 pm Leave a comment

Back when I still accepted web design jobs, one of my clients was an author who had written a book called “Life Teachings: Raising a Child.” The book is all about the philosophy of raising children, and since my assignment was to create a website promoting this title, Jeanie sent me a copy of the book, and I read it.

I disagreed with the philosophy in most of the book, but there is one part that I found very good, which is where Jeanie explains how she taught her girls the concept of empathy. She did it through playing a game with her daughters where they would “turn the viewpoint,” which meant they would try to examine life from the perspective of someone else. Like, for example, a cow in a field.

Jeanie would ask her girls questions like, “How does the world look from his point of view?” or “Does he have any concerns?” And from this framework, they would talk about life and love from a bovine perspective.

As her girls got older, Jeanie used this framework to help them examine other people in everyday life. Like if the checkout clerk at the grocery store was rude, they would imagine possibilities to explain why. If the girls saw a sign telling them to rinse off before getting into the swimming pool, they’d look for explanations for why the owner thought such a sign was important. Etc.

Honestly, I wish everyone was required to go through such exercises. For all the points on which I disagreed with this author, I think she was exactly right to teach her girls the importance of understanding why people act the way they do. Because, when we are able to see things from someone else’s perspective, we are much better able to deal constructively with them.

Of course, there are occasions when we still may not agree with the person’s actions, like with the woman in the grocery store who is being rude. Rudeness is wrong, period. Empathizing, however, still enables us to get a better glimpse of what motivates her to act in that manner. Which helps us in doing something constructive to change the situation.

Then, on the flip side, there are those occasions, like with a “no diving” sign at the pool, or something like that, where seeing the world from someone else’s perspective brings on the realization that—of all things!—an action that we thought uncalled for was actually right. Some behavior or belief that seemed outrageous or stupid a minute ago is suddenly completely justified.

Now, my apologies for taking this back to Jonathan Edwards yet again, but I think this “turning the viewpoint” thing is a little of what happened to me with Edwards. (I give you my word, this is my last post about Edwards. Really.)

I had a very bad impression of Edwards prior to reading Marsden’s biography of him. My only real exposure to him had been Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and that sermon was just atrocious, in my opinion. Moreover, I knew Edwards was Calvinist, and that was a huge strike against him (my apologies to my Calvinist friends, but Calvinism has always seemed an unbearably awful theology, and I’ve never understood how anyone in their right mind could adhere to it).

A funny thing happened, though, as I started reading about the man and engaging with his life and his times and his struggles. I realized, you know what?–the man wasn’t stupid. He actually had a whole lot right.

There are still some ways in which I disagree with him, of course. I still cringe when I read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; probably always will. And I still don’t think I could ever stomach strict Calvinism.

But I have more respect for Edwards now. Stepping into his shoes, walking a mile with him, learning to identify with his life—that was good for me. When I grasped why he was thinking the way he did, I had a whole lot more appreciation for his conclusions. And yep, that includes even his theology.

(Wow. I never, ever, thought I’d say that I appreciated Edwards’s theology. 😛 )

Not being Calvinist, I have the most difficulty, of course, with predestination. To someone staunchly committed to free will, this doctrine seems absolutely abominable. Yet, even on this point of such division, I think I have a lot better understanding of why he embraced this doctrine.

In fact, I actually agreed with him, in a sense. Predestination, the way he presented it and believed it, made sense. He was presenting a picture of God that I don’t usually consider, but one which is valid, and perhaps even needed.

I would not have portrayed things the same way were I asked to discuss the same topic, but still: Edwards’s viewpoint illuminated holes and blind spots and limitations in my own perspective—some angles I was missing, some sides of the issue I couldn’t see, some places where I was just plain short-sighted.

And…well…I think that was enriching. It was proof to me that the view from other people’s shoes is worth seeking out.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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