A Path to Understanding Others

In the early days of the internship program at Forest Psychiatric Hospital, I was one of the psychologists who fashioned the training experience for the grad students newly invited to spend a year with us.

I recall suggesting the interns occupy the role of patients on their first day. The staff was told they were graduate trainees but not actual residents. The real patients stayed in the dark.

Everything else proceeded in the usual fashion for new admissions, including entering the facility, rooming with the inpatients overnight, attending group therapy sessions, and eating in the cafeteria.

At the end of 24 hours, the play-acting ended, and the future counselors began the formal part of their experience in a different psychiatric unit, as I recall.

Neither my colleagues nor I recognized the questionable nature of this deception, and ethics committees within universities and hospitals didn’t exist everywhere. I recommended it because I thought it essential for future psychologists to stand in the shoes of those they would be ministering to.

Nothing could compare to the lived experience, or so we believed.

Later, when I received supervision in administering and interpreting neuropsychological tests, I applied the same principle to myself. I asked the senior psychologist first to give me the examination. I wanted to “duplicate” the position of those who I would be evaluating. Only could I thereby create their “first-time” experience before I ever took the “doctor’s role.”

Now jump with me to what allows us, you and me, to understand people who live in circumstances different than ours.

Our automatic attempt to fathom their behavior and thought process — to see into their hearts and heads — comes from the perspective of the sense organs, what we have been told, our inborn nature, and conclusions based on the world we know.

The joys and sorrows our world has brought us, perhaps of a very different kind than they’ve faced, can only be used to approximate or serve as a translator to help us achieve understanding from our limited perspective.

Can we then latch on to the motivations and actions of those whose life experience is unusual to us? I am questioning not only mental health professionals but every one of us. Identifying with others takes an uncommon level of training and introspection.

Sometimes we humans draw the wrong picture of others, piling up distorted figurations like misshapen pancakes.

Our judgments are generally self-serving. We simplify the human experience and don’t wish to blame ourselves. Adverse reactions to those unlike us, those of less status and those who are “different,” are as plentiful as the fruit on a flourishing banana tree.

Herb Childress, in a brilliant book dealing with higher education, wrote about how we dismiss the complicated and unfortunate lives of others while taking on a sense of superiority over them:

There’s a strong hindsight bias that works to confirm one’s own positive traits, whether those traits are skill, talent, hard work, ot persistence.

Moreover, he continues:

But when successful people don’t acknowledge the role that things outside their control have played in their success, they don’t think to create those conditions for others; they imagine that the less fortunate are simply less worthy.*

It is easy and comforting to think the world is a controllable place where people usually get what they deserve and deserve what they get. If individuals dissimilar to “our people” encounter misfortune, we tend to prefer an explanation exempting us from the possibility it will happen to us. We sleep better if we think this way.

In a world fraught with differences, it becomes apparent how far many of us misunderstand the imagined lives others experience.

Do you really think you can get inside of (take your pick) a differently gendered soul situated in an unfamiliar social class, race, native language, or nationality? How about the personalities of those who have known periods of starvation, served in battle, been raped or molested, or beaten? I could go on.

Do you recognize the challenge of grasping the viewpoint, fear, or heartbreak of people who endured wartime, life-threatening disease, poverty, or genocide? Or lived 40 years before your grandparents did or began life 40 years after you, like your grandchildren?

Without knowing it, as a young psychologist, I was already blessed to observe the world within an island of relative safety and the misfortunes I missed.

Why? First, mine was a limited, cloistered encounter with the globe, born in a time of prosperity. My family met the criteria of the period for lower-middle-class. Mom and dad did their best to raise me in a neighborhood with uncommonly good public schools. College education was cheap, scholarships were available to win, and pollution and climate change were not yet on the radar.

The Chicago summer skies almost always displayed a beautiful blue instead of gray. I received a healthy body and a decent brain in the lottery I won from Mother Nature.

Gerry Stein was a white male in a white man’s world before civil rights legislation became national law.

But the limitations of my experience also told against my ability to understand the folks I treated. Apart from my training and the supervision I received, I was innocent of much about life, though my shelves included plenty of books and my ears had heard of terrible turns and tragedies.

Once in a therapy practice, the stories I listened to from the sufferers stood out. They educated me, though not by intention. Story after story, multiple layers of individual memories, thousands of tales and perspectives.

Yet I was still outside of them, away from them, as if peering through binoculars or a telescope. Some of my patients related their early life hardships involving disease and starvation, not anything I’d personally encountered or endured. Their emotions were not mine nor their wisdom, poor judgment, or sheer awful luck.

To better understand our fellow humans, we need to climb into their lives imaginatively, reimagine and extend our imagination beyond stereotypes into a different time, place, body, heart, and brain.

No one will require you to enter the psyche and anatomy of someone traumatized, desperate, horrified or delighted, ecstatic, or entitled. Going that far, the next step requires recognizing your limits of thought and feeling to grasp theirs.

It is essential, then, to create thought experiments, submerging oneself in “the heart of darkness.” It might be a precarious place of less control, more random acts, fewer models of successful coping, having to choose between medication and food, negative judgments, and the difficulty of finding someone trustworthy or understanding.

This is becoming harder to do these days, I would argue. When the USA had a military draft, abled-bodied men from different backgrounds shared the experience of basic training and going to war. Now we let the children of others “volunteer” to fight for us (making for wars we promote or oppose) without any of our “skin in the game.”

Inevitably, the offspring of wealth and education are more likely spared, while those without better job prospects enter combat more often than those who were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”

The warriors of whatever class suffer. According to the NY Times, “at least 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019,” and “nearly 16% of (those) deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.”

People at a physical distance from us are easier to misjudge, demonize, or forget and ignore in their pained existence. Indeed, from his contemporary home office, the boss can fire a person he rarely sees by emailing him a virtual pink slip. No one need ever speak to him to say the words.

No muss or fuss, no eye contact, nor an instant given to the essential humanity of the “other” — the soul dismissed both as an equal and an employee. War is also fought at distances of thousands of miles. Drones destroy people like us, operated by people like us seated in front of computers that might as well be video games.

How often do we think about someone in a third-world country making a garment we praise as “beautiful and oh so cheap!” Of course, it is inexpensive because the worker in a dirty, unairconditioned factory receives far less payment than she would in wealthier nations.

Her life is a mystery and misery to us, and we don’t want to hear more. It would be too hard to know. Challenging to consider, harder still on the dressmaker and her children to withstand.

We objectify those invisible to us or make them into cartoons. We think we understand their inner workings when we have no idea. The world becomes impersonal, good or bad, made of fellow humans we make into saints, sinners, or vague aberrations we describe as stupid, lazy, or evil.

They are placed by us into one category, not in a position to straddle the line between worthy and imperfect, as actual beings do, including ourselves.

Once necessary for early man to survive, tribalism makes us quick to judge those who come from a distant place, look different, speak another tongue, and are as wary of us as we are of them. We fail to socialize with them, and our tendency to make them foes first and ask questions later diminishes us all.

It is too easy to think the evils of this world are due only to one group spawned far away who we can keep away. It is easy to think “they” plot against us and lie all day, every day. We degrade ourselves, no matter that some of the “misdeeds” of “those people” are real and some few corrupt.

If I were back in the position of training young adults, I might make another suggestion, more extreme than the one I described earlier.

I’d advise young people at an early stage of political life, law, or the ministry to spend several months living in the neighborhood of groups different from themselves. They’d seek medical care from their doctors, wear the same clothes, and eat the food typical of the location and its people.

Their job would include getting an ordinary job and making friends as newcomers. If these future authority figures took such training, participants might return to their homes with a fresh perception of the “strange place” they’d lived, now aware “they” are not as strange as previously believed.

A “draft” of young women and men into this kind of service to the world would also be a service to them.

I’d hope for a gradual enlargement of civility toward and appreciation of those encountered. It is even possible some of the young adults who ventured to do this might acknowledge that their judgments had been wrong and begin to hesitate to project their traits and biases on people outside of their close acquaintance.

Since this idea isn’t likely to happen soon, what can the rest of us do?

As a start, consider reimagining your parents’ lives before your birth. Talk to them or, if they are gone, interview their living relatives and friends — people who lived in the same place and time.

Assuming you knew your parents and have some memory of them, think and look through their departed hearts, experiences, schooling, and every other aspect of the time before you arrived and the possible impact your new life had on them.

If you are bolder, find someone on the other side of whatever divide you find most troubling these days. Exert the effort to find out their point of view, but only after first becoming friends. Ask questions and try to set aside prejudgments.

Talk less and listen more.

Perhaps someday, there might also be a virtual way for men to spend time carrying a child inside them and going through labor. No joke.

Enlightenment would grow from such an opportunity.

So would hope for ourselves and the future of the world.


All but Laura Hedien’s photo were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first image is a Looped MRI Video of a Healthy 13-year Old Female’s Heart Beating. Alith3204 created it. Next is a Green Banana Tree by Rosendahl.

A Pile of Stacked Gold Bars was photographed by Stevebidmead. Laura Hedien’s Chicago River Downtown appears here with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

A 1919 Newspaper Ad for the Movie “You’re Fired” comes after Ms. Hedien’s work. Last is a shot of Two Blossom-headed Parakeets, a picture taken by Touhid biplop.

17 thoughts on “A Path to Understanding Others

  1. Talk less and listen more. A piece of wisdom that applies to almost every circumstance.

    This piece has such elegance in the way you lay the groundwork for why we’ll never walk in anyone else’s shoes but how we can start to try. It reminds me of my dad who went to study in India for 2 years while he was getting his theology degree. He described it as a time when he felt the west was feeling the influence of the east – like with yoga, and it was a way to understand those origins. He also didn’t believe that you could change anyone’s beliefs without walking among them. I don’t think anyone, either my dad or the people he met in India, changed their beliefs based on his time there but he developed empathy and friendships that lasted a lifetime.

    I love this piece for the way you encourage us to do more to understand either other — and listen more. Thank you, Dr. Stein!

    Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      You are welcome, Wynne. And thank you for what I’m guessing is the highest praise you can offer — reminding you of the father you loved and esteemed more than anyone else you’ve commented on in your writings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree when you say: “To better understand our fellow humans, we need to climb into their lives imaginatively, reimagine and extend our imagination beyond stereotypes into a different time, place, body, heart, and brain.” This approach cannot be easy for anyone going into the field of psychotherapy, but, without a doubt, would be crucial to one’s success. It’s also applicable to each one of us in our relations with others, especially in these times of such divisiveness.
    I doubt that a virtual experience of pregnancy and labor would change men’s appreciation of what women endure. My body was never the same after childbearing. Then there is the breastfeeding/nursing and care of the totally dependent infant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Rosaliene. Indeed, you are in a position to know more than I do about the changes to one’s body and the multiple tasks of raising children, though I did some of the latter, not including breastfeeding, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “How about the personalities of those who have known periods of starvation, served in battle, been raped or molested, or beaten?”. When I started to read this sentence I thought “I can’t imagine as a middle class Canadian born in the 60s starvation”. Or combat. Then I read those who have been raped or molested and my blood ran cold. I have spent the last 5 years (ages 52-57) in therapy discovering through horrific nightmares, body memories, and more instinctual “memories” that I was abused this way by my father for many years. He is now dead so it was safe to remember. My life of anxiety, panic, touch aversion now makes sense to me which is a relief. If I hadn’t gone through this I would not have believed the complex journey I have been on. My preconceived notions of what someone abused and their family would look like have all been proven false. I now know there are survivors all around us daily and the monsters that hurt them. They all look like the rest of us. I try not to judge people because I cannot know there story.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. drgeraldstein

    I am so sorry you had to live through those experiences, Pat. When I practiced, I can recall other people well into adulthood who began to remember only when the abuser died and they were safe from him or her. As many abuse survivors as I treated, I recognize that I was always on the outside, the lucky one who wasn’t so abused. Do I know what I’d have done in the face of similar mistreatment and after it was over? Certainly not. Congratulations on your bravery, a quality always in short supply. You have paid a steep price. I hope circumstances are now significantly better.

    Best wishes and thank you for offering your story.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. As difficult as my upbringing was, with the mental illness, poverty, and a disruptive home, it certainly did prepare me for my career within the state mental health system. I was able to relate and feel comfortable with the population we served, which helped me greatly with establishing a rapport with them. Having a sense of what they faced on a daily basis, I was in awe of many of them for successfully managing their illness, and for successfully living in a community based setting. It is easy to judge the poor and downtrodden, but place ourselves in their shoes and try to support a rent, utilities and food on a meager SSI check and $10 monthly in food-stamps (EBT), and many of them doing so cheerfully. This was a good post…a lot to chew on.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Nancy. I think you got it right in saying, “Having a sense of what they faced …” That is the best we can do — to get close, approximate, or translate another’s experience into our own language. You might enjoy an outstanding book published in 1990: “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.” by Eva Hoffman.

    The author came with her family in 1959 from Cracow, Poland, to Vancouver, Canada, when she was 13. She describes the experience of adapting to and adopting a new culture and how some ideas and concepts never could quite survive the process of taking them from one place to another, where they were “lost in translation.”

    I purchased this book as a gift to a psychiatrist I knew. She had come to the USA from Poland at about the same time as many of her relatives. She was so taken by the book that she bought over a dozen copies for other family members.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This book does sound interesting and I will grab it. Thank you for your comments and for the book recommendation, Dr. Stein!


  8. “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”
    Rainer Maria Rilke

    Liked by 1 person

  9. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Brewdun. I don’t recall reading this before. Rilke is always telling and beautiful, whether one agrees with him or not. In this case, I think the question becomes, what is the difference between “side by side” and “seeing the other whole against the sky?” What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just my interpretation – “side by side” is too close to get the full picture or understanding. It’s too personal, each is too immersed in their own interpretations of the same experience to be truly able to appreciate how the other person views the identical circumstance.

      “Seeing the other whole against the sky”, gives one more perspective. It’s a more detached way of looking at someone/something. It allows for a clearer picture of the whole as opposed to just specific parts which may not tell the entire story.

      Even “imaginatively”, it’s almost impossible to “climb into” somebody else’s life. Your previous experiences vs. theirs would not match up your imagination with their reality. Further, exactly because you are not “them”, even living in “their” world for a period of time would not give you the same experience as theirs. You would be treated and reacted to differently in “their” world than them because you would be perceived as “other” by them in their world. You can empathize, you can try to imagine but you will never, ever really know.

      I would love to know what YOU think the difference is.

      Liked by 2 people

      • drgeraldstein

        I doubt I can improve on your interpretation and description, Brewdun. You are very wise. Thanks for your comment.


      • “Wisdom” is something I’ve never been accused of, you’re way too kind, thank you! ❤️


  10. Dr. Stein….I hope you and your family were not at that parade in Highland Park today, and I hope you are all well! Another horrible tragedy….when will it stop!


    • drgeraldstein

      We are fine. As far as I can tell people are off the streets. All public events have been cancelled. The last question can only be rhetorical and, of course, terrible to contemplate, but I think individuals, all of us, will have to do their part to put the country on a civil and safe path. Thank you for your kind thoughts, Nancy

      Liked by 1 person

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