Commentary – Seeing things from other points of view

Joe McWilliams

It’s a useful exercise, I’ve always found, to look at things from the other person’s point of view. You may not agree with what they do, say, or think – but at least you can understand it, or at least make a half-decent effort to.

Some do this automatically. Others can’t seem to do it at all, and as a result are always reacting negatively, jumping to conclusions – often the wrong ones. Or if not completely wrong, at least unhelpful. If the goal is to get along with other human beings, it makes sense to try to figure out ‘where they’re coming from.’

People do weird things. They abuse themselves. They abuse others. They act as if they don’t care what happens. It’s hard for the average joe to understand, and easy to dismiss these folks as ‘morons,’ or ‘idiots,’ or perhaps deserving of whatever lousy end fate has in store for them.

Sometimes they probably do deserve it. And sometimes it’s more than an ordinary empathetic person can do to understand things from the other guy’s point of view. Take world-class fraud artist Bernie Madoff, who stole billions from investment clients who trusted him.

What was he motivated by? How did he justify such massive deceit? It boggles the mind. He’ll die in prison for it, estranged from everyone who ever meant anything to him. But at the time, it apparently seemed like a brilliant idea to Madoff. Putting one over on the snobbish, greedy rich, whom he probably despised. But I could be dead wrong. The mind of a sociopath is awfully obscure to somebody who isn’t one.

Last week, somebody exploded a bomb in the embassy neighbourhood of Kabul Afghanistan, killing at least 80 people. It’s only one outrage of many, but of particular interest to me, because 40 years ago I walked right through that same neighbourhood – in fact was writing about the experience just the other day. Kabul was a fun and fascinating place back then and it left a strong and positive impression.

Getting at the motivation for the perpetrators of such a crime is very, very difficult.

Trying to prove something? Trying to destabilize a government they see as illegitimate? Striking a blow for the glory of God?

It looks more like killing for its own sake. You try to figure it out, but you come up pretty quickly against a stone wall. What possible good can it do? How can mass killing be justified?

There is an answer to that question, because the perpetrators are human beings and human beings tend to justify their actions, however fantastical the reasoning.

But I’ve strayed pretty far from my original point. Ordinary empathy is a great thing. Without it, we’d be facing off against each other in armed camps, all the time. It only works so far, as noted above.

But in ordinary, day-to-day circumstances, it definitely helps to reach out beyond what one is comfortable with, to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt and at least try to understand why he does things the way he does.

Share this post