Understanding Other People

understanding other people, image 6It seems to be increasingly difficult to understand other people. These days we interact and communicate through email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and text messaging, with greater frequency than we engage in in-person and face-to-face encounters. Though these avenues of communication are oftentimes more convenient and can, indeed, contribute to the growth of friendships, they also have critical shortcomings.  understanding other people, image 1

One of the most important aspects of our humanity is empathy and understanding other’s feelings. How do we understand what others are feeling? The most common answer to this question is facial expressions. However, new research is proving that answer wrong. Research suggests that assumptions made about mood based upon another’s facial expression are flawed. Rather one must use all cues, such as speech content, vocalizations, body posture, etc. These cues are much more apparent and easily understandable in face-to-face interactions; however, even when we are present among others we are commonly blind and ignorant to our reality. understanding other people, image 5

The truth is that the problem goes beyond speech. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo explains:

We do not grasp that we are invisible. We do not realize that we are in a world of invisible. We do not realize that we are in a world of invisible people. We do not understand that life before all other definitions of it is a drama of the visible and the invisible, (Between Silence and Speech, 155).

We not only have trouble seeing the world around us but even seeing ourselves. We, for the most part, live in intellectual and spiritual darkness. This is where the import of religion and community becomes apparent. The role of religious life is to open our eyes. The goal of ritual is to open our hearts. The purpose of community is to support us in this journey.

Part of understanding other people is learning to respect other people. Consider the words of the great Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin:

Out of the of righteous acts by non-Jewish biblical heroes we learn of the need for heroes” from the other side.” Gentiles need Jews as heroes, and Jews need gentiles as heroes; African-Americans need white heroes, and white heroes need African-American heroes; Palestinians need Israeli heroes, and Israelis need Palestinian heroes. We are instructed to love the stranger and to celebrate the love the stranger shows us, (Righteous Gentiles, x).

understanding other people, image 3Rabbi Salkin is making a very important and insightful point in this excerpt. That is, only when we can see not only struggle and dignity but also heroism in the “other,” can we truly begin to understand them. That understanding will lead to mutual respect and from that position of respect will we truly be able to love others. We must ensure we are truly encountering the full other and not merely a social identity or temporary façade.

Today, given our increasing alienation from others, we need more tools to understand ourselves, our world, and other people.

American moral philosopher Dr. Susan Neiman explains the philosophical origins of the problem:

René Descartes hoped to undermine the Scholastic science of his day by proclaiming: ‘Whatever I perceive clearly and distinctly is true.’ Rather than the authority of ancient wisdom, which the Scholastics used to back their arguments Descartes wanted his readers to rely on their own perception, (Moral Clarity, 219).

understanding other people, image 4What we can derive from Dr. Neiman’s work is that we have evolved beyond simply interpreting reality based upon ancient wisdom, and have now landed in a place where we largely rely upon individual perception. That autonomous approach has failed us too and we must step away from radical-individualism and over-confidence in our own minds and work to achieve more collaborative understandings of reality. This can happen through dialogue and argumentation.

Even more, we must make an honest and dedicated effort to relearn to listen.

The role of religion, particularly Judaism, in this endeavor is very meaningful, although often overlooked or, worse, ignored. In the historical journey from mysticism to science, many glossed over the balance between faith and reason, confidence and humility. However, Judaism demands that we live in paradox. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expressed the point well: understanding other people, image 2

There is a way of summarizing the history of the West in three sentences. In the beginning people believed in many gods. Monotheism came and reduced them to one. Science came and reduced them to none, (A Letter in the Scroll, 70).

A world where all truth is empirical can lead to dangerous philosophical and intellectual certainties, at the expense and negation of other values and senses.

In the Torah, the Divine voice was revealed as a “still, small voice.” Only those with the patience and spiritual astuteness to listen very carefully can hear the voice. We must endeavor to achieve these characteristics if we are to understand others and ourselves.

Though we should strive to seek truth, we do not know how close to certainty we should get. The Sages argued, after pure truth was lost and argument over interpretation emerged, whether prophecy was now only with the sages or whether it was only with the children and fools. The answer seems clear. We must embrace humility so as to own the limitations of our understanding. This is the starting place from where we should approach others. She is not me, her mind is not mine, our backgrounds and commitments are different. Even her facial expressions do not reveal her truth. Once we can understand and accept these limitations we can truly begin to understand others.

Even further, we are not even sure which mental faculties to rely upon:

One leading neurologist, V.S. Ramachandran, has described the mirror neurons that react equally to pain in one patient and the observation of pain in another as ‘Dalai Lama cells.’ These neurons (mirror neurons) were dissolving the barrier between the self and others – showing that our brains are actually “wired up” for empathy and compassion. Notice that one isn’t being metaphorical in saying this; the neurons in question simply can’t tell if you or the other person is being poked. It’s as if the mirror neurons were doing a virtual reality simulation of what’s going on in the other person’s brain – thereby almost “feeling” the other’s pain.’ If research continues to support the idea that we are hardwired for empathy, it would be powerful confirmation of the naturalist view the eighteenth century acquired without access to primate or neurological research. Moral sentimentalists like Hutcheson, Smith, and Hume argued that were are naturally endowed with feelings of sympathy and concern for others that move us to act in their behalf. Strict Kantians may hold that without being founded on principle, such actions are not fully moral, an objection that has been raised to De Waal’s claims about the moral capacities of apes, (Moral Clarity, 271-272).

Do we rely upon our conscience, emotional sentiments, reason, religious principle, or authorities? George Washington claimed that, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” The first President moved us forward in understanding our need for all human faculties.

I believe, it is spiritual and intellectual life that can help us achieve that deeper level of understanding. We must be alive, so alive that all of our human faculties are active and processing when engaging with others. Though our preoccupation with social media and non-personal communication presents challenges to understanding, we must remain steadfast in our dedication to humanity and pursuit of enlightenment.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.