When my nearly-ten-year-old approached me recently with this question, I thought, “Uh-oh . . . high school physiology review courtesy of Google . . . Let me look up rods and cones and try to figure this one out.”
But that’s not what he meant.
He clarified. “I mean, Mom, how do we know how other people see orange—you know, the way you see orange is the same way I do?”
So, I stopped. This isn’t a question I could readily answer, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.
Luckily, my son was not nearly as tongue-tied. He continued, “How do you ever know how anybody sees or feels anything? How do I know what feels sad for me feels the same as sad for someone else?”
And I realized these weren’t questions of science but of empathy—the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation, the quality of not necessarily intellectually understanding why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, but the power to put yourself in their shoes, even temporarily.
This was about compassion.
I told him that the best we can do, limited creatures that we are, is to ask, to talk, and to care enough to ask and talk about what is important to other people—and then to listen—very carefully—when they respond, if we are lucky enough to get—to deserve—a response.
It’s about not dismissing people simply because they don’t do things the way we do.
It’s about knowing the way one person sees orange may not be the way you see orange.
And truly believing that for this mystery, for these differences, we should be grateful.
A conversation brought to me by a fifth-grader for which no high school class or Google search could have prepared me . . .