We often discuss in my field of study, psychology, what it means to be human. Or what sets us apart (if at all) from other animals. While I do have some sympathy with those who view us on a “continuum” from lower animals, it seems pretty obvious to that we are something significantly different from other animals. What has struck me in the past few days in particular is our ability to imagine ourselves being something or someone other than what or who we are. Notably has been my thinking about the people I see very day and wondering what they are like and wondering what it would be like to be them.
On my walk to work, about one mile, I see people of every variety from the upper caste and wealthier to the slum-living lower caste. I imagine most of you have felt this way as well, but I look at them and wonder what it would be like if I were them and they were me. What would it be like, for example to have underdeveloped, skinny legs that seemed to not bend the right way? To not be able to work, to be judged as less of a person for my disability? To be begging for coins on the walkway under the street? To sleep there? What would I think every day while I sat there? Would I be bitter and angry or resigned to my fate? Would I feel grateful when people stopped and gave me money or would I feel resentful if people didn’t stop?
What about the guy giving me a ride on his rickshaw? If I were him would I enjoy the physical effort of my job? Where do I live? Am I married, with children? What do I hope for in my life? What do I eat? What do I think of this pale skinned guy that I pick up in my rickshaw? Do I think of him as a real person with real thoughts, feelings, hopes? Or might I see him as a symbol of something and not as a full human being?
This ability, besides being about empathy, is also the source of the creativity and destructiveness of envy. Since we can imagine a life other than our own, we can wish to be or to have something that some else has or owns. We see someone with expensive possessions and we can imagine ourselves with that instead of them. We see someone with some physical or intellectual or social characteristic and imagine ourselves with that quality. That makes us feel, somehow, that they took it from us–since we can imagine it with us or belonging to us we feel like it could be ours. So if they have it maybe we should have had it instead. It is a strange feeling and so very painful for some people. I feel fortunate in my life (I am fortunate in so many ways) that I don’t feel envy all that often. But when it does, it burns.
The positive side? That same empathy can lead us to want to raise up others in the ways we might see them as struggling in comparison to us. We may want them to have the advantages that we have, the joys that we experience. We may be led to try to relieve some of their suffering because of how good our lives have been.