It reminds me that, many times in life, people tell me “you don’t understand.” And many times they are right. But paradoxically it’s not always true that you have to go through a situation yourself in order to understand what it is like. You can understand what something is like (at the very least intellectually or philosophically) and be spurred to action because of it. Think of the many people who fought social injustices like child sweat shops, slavery, the degradation of women who were not children, slaves or slave descendants, nor women.
Moreover, I daresay I have met people who have an uncanny ability to empathize (now I’m speaking of experiential knowledge) with suffering people without ever having gone through the situation of the sufferers. My mother and my good friend Peter are the two prime examples in my mind. I think it’s a gift from God and it comes in handy with showing compassion and serving.
So many times people tell me “I don’t understand. You’ll understand when you become a parent.” It’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t mean it’s true. You see, you can understand where a person is coming from. You can even understand why they are saying what they are saying, and at the same time, you can still disagree with it. I do this with myself many times. I know why I am thinking the way I am thinking. I know what is making me feel like this. I know where I am coming from, but I know my thoughts are wrong, bad, negative, malignant, unhelpful, and nonproductive. I know that. So disagreement or non-alignment does not mean you don’t understand. It means you go deeper. Now, disagreement COULD mean you don’t understand. But it doesn’t NECESSARILY mean you don’t understand.
The last time I heard this was in reference to my parents. A good friend’s mother was telling me I don’t know what it’s like. I have never had a twenty-something year-old child. Regardless I do understand the sentiments of parents. I know where Nigerian parents come from (different parenting cultures than American parents). I get it. And I understand the actions of such parents from where they come from. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with every action. I often disagree with stupid things I’ve done which were based on initial gut reactions or emotive impulse.
Especially in South Africa, I try to allow for the fact that though the person I’m talking to may not have stood in my shoes, he might have the ability to see things from my shoes. That’s quite possible.