Empathetic Perception

I was recently refered to as “one of the cool kids.” This, of course, is the current colloquialism for being part of the “in” crowd, the “popular” people and the like. Funny thing, though, I have never felt like I was in the “in” crowd, never felt like I was popular and, despite having had a few “best friends” throughout my 56 years, I have never felt as though I was someone else’s “best friend.” Granted, much of that feeling is just that, it might not be reality, but my perspective of always being on the outside looking in, sometimes longing to be in, is real. In the past 15 or so years, I have done a lot of work on myself, a lot of self-examination, some reflection and quite a bit of writing just like this and, as a result, my self-perception has changed.

Perception. It is much more than just the framework through which I see the world. It is also the framework through which you see yours, and through which you see me. And how I see you. And how everyone sees everything and everyone else. Each one is wholly unique. I guarantee that they way I view Sally is not exactly the same way anyone else views her. Not in terms of appearance, character, personality, privilege, luck and thousands of other ways we see things, each another sub-frame, or perspective. The number of ways in which we construct reality is mind-boggling. How I am receiving the world — right here, right now — is only my perception; it’s not like anyone else’s, and it never will be.

Empathy differs from compassion or sympathy in that it is not an emotion, per se; rather, empathy seeks understanding, the ability to “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” However, despite our efforts to imagine what it must be like to wear those shoes, we cannot actually put them on. Still, similar experiences can get us remarkably close — in isolation. But the perspective, that frame we are forced to looked through, is not only influenced by a wide range of variables - and experiences are not only just one variety of variable; all of our disparate experiences work with and against each other, rendering each a distinct element, a new variable, in just this one area. When factored all the way out, the number of things contributing to our perception is infinite. Groupings and similarities aside, each one of our worldviews is totally unique.

That means that whether I am a “cool kid” or not depends on the perception of others. It is a tenuous place to be, teetering on the edge of coolness. There was a time when my image — that version of me that I present to the world — was constructed to create a perception that would allow me access to that which I desired. Friends, of course, but also other human connections that would validate who I was. There was a problem, however. I did not know who I was. To say that my self-perception is unaffected by what others see would be a lie, much the same as saying, “I don’t care what you think.” I do care what certain others think, and I am very much affected by how others view me. It contributes to how I see myself. But it doesn’t have to dictate who I am.

So how do others view me? I actually have a little insight on that. It took more than 50 years to get it, but I’m a little slow out of the blocks. I am one of the “cool kids.” To those who were like me earlier in my life, who saw those who looked like me and did some of the things I do, who see a veritable “free spirit,” my life looks pretty fantastic. But there are those, too, who think I am arrogant, obnoxious and, frankly, an asshole. Nothing cool about any of that, but for some I can come across that way and their perception is that I am an asshole. And it is perfectly valid, I do not discount it. For others I am a professor — some think I am a cool one, other’s think I am anything but. I am a father to three boys and although they share many similarities in their lives, each their perceptions of me as a father and as a person is also unique — they each see me as an entirely different person. Again, the variables are infinite, the result cannot be anything but unique.

And that brings me to me. Who am I? Really, who the fuck am I? I see myself in a way that has been built on my experiences, my interactions, my environment, an infinite number of variables have contributed to the way I see myself and where I fit in the world. The answer today is not the same as it was last week or last year. It will not be the same next week or next year. Are there constants, certain static aspects of what makes me, me? Maybe, or perhaps aspects that change very slowly, but there are also plenty that can change me and my viewpoint violently. Who am I today? I am me.

But I know that the way I see myself — in all my various and sundry roles, is not the same way anyone else sees me. My perspective and that of others could be so different that I would not recognize the person described as me to me. Indeed, that has happened. And the way I see others might not remotely resemble who they think they are. It’s a humbling thought that the “poor, misunderstood me” routine can and probably does apply to everyone. We are all misunderstood by a lot of other people, but we are also very closely understood by others, probably far fewer. Some perceive us in a way that is very close to how we see ourselves. By keeping all that in mind, I can come closest to putting on someone else’s shoes and lacing them. They might end up hurting my feet before I get a mile, but I’ll be that many steps closer understanding. And understanding is what empathy needs to realign perception.

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Michael Althouse

Lecturer/professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento. www.michaelalthouse.com