Years ago, as part of a retreat for environmental activists, we did an exercise imagining different points of view. Here was a scenario: a waterfront property owner had dumped sand to add beach to his property and, in the process, eliminated a wetland. There were three points of view: first, the wetland, its plants and animals and processes; second, an environmentalist who was trying to remedy the situation; and third, the property owner. Every participant had to imagine themselves inhabiting each of those points of view.
I will never forget the complete incapacity of one young woman to do the last part of the exercise. She simply was unable to get “inside” the person who had altered the landscape. Other participants could imagine the landowner as someone who needed orderly beauty, or who hated mosquitoes. One person even envisioned a lonely grandfather trying to attract his grandchildren to visit. But not this young woman. She saw only a selfish jerk who deserved to be humiliated and punished.
In a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, the author Garrett Keizer said, “I know of no more definitive expression of stupidity than proudly professing a total inability to understand an opponent’s position on a controversial issue.” This provocative sentence had me thinking about my oft-repeated remark, “I just can’t imagine what he/she was thinking.” This refrain is usually intended to underscore someone else’s stupidity; but Keizer re-frames that. MY lack of imagination is stupidity. Oops.
We are hard-wired to imagine what the other is thinking. Our brains support this behavior because it is adaptive for the species. The more we can understand the other—which is not to say that we agree with the other—the more likely we will be able to work together. Want this lovely world to survive the coming environmental crises? Start by trying to understand someone.
Try these on for size, the realities of people we know: A woman whose hard-won independence after a lifetime of abuse makes her unwilling to be vaccinated. A brother whose fully-vaxxed sister died from COVID after nursing her infected no-vax husband. The elderly neighbour isolated for the past 18 months. A vaccinated nurse who has contracted COVID twice from her unvaccinated patients. The neighbour whose livelihood depends on logging. The neighbour who has spent his life repairing clear-cuts and restoring habitat.
These are remarkably difficult times. A friend wailed this week, “I just want something to be stable!” Well, don’t we all? But I need to beware of that easy settling for rigidity rather than the discomfort of a generous and flexible stability. When I cement myself into one worldview, when I am unwilling to understand the other, then I become unable to understand the other. When understanding is gone, so is the ground for cooperation and change. Devolution begins. The centre cannot hold because there is no centre—only your side and my side.
The stability we long for starts when we are willing to imagine life through the other’s eyes.