By Luke Dalfiume, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Co-Owner, John R. Day & Associates, Christian Psychological Associates
A favorite psychiatrist/author of mine is Irvin Yalom. He wrote a gem of a book called The Gift of Therapy. This book consists of a series of brief, seemingly random, chapters containing bits of clinical wisdom from someone who did psychotherapy back when psychiatrists did. One of his chapters is about looking out the other’s window. He tells the story of a woman who had a difficult relationship with her father. He was driving her back to college, and she was hopeful they would have a different experience. While driving along she saw a beautiful creek along the side of the road. However, her father complained about how the creek was so filled with garbage, and this confirmed, for her, her negative view of her father. They never did repair their relationship, and at some point he died. She later drove the same route, this time as the driver, and was shocked to see there were two creeks. The one on the passenger side, where she had been riding years earlier, was beautiful and pristine. The other, on the driver’s side, was as her father had described it.
Yalom used this story to discuss the concept of empathy. Empathy involves not only understanding another, but being able to put oneself in the position of another, understanding at a level deeper than mere understanding what and how another person is experiencing things.
Approximately a year ago I wrote an article for this publication reviewing a book that discussed some research regarding the things that are the most important to people of different political leanings. Shortly after, I received an anonymous, late-night voice mail from someone who was angry about what I had written about what the author said.
I was taken aback, a bit frustrated the caller did not understand I was discussing someone else’s work, and it was not my opinion, but a presentation of the author’s objective research and conclusions. My intention was not to insult, but to inform. But the anonymous stranger, looking out their particular window, clearly felt angered enough by what I had written that they left a late-night voice mail for me.
I do not know what things look like out the caller’s window. Because of the anonymous nature of the message, I am left to speculate. In the absence of more data, even that seems pointless. We live during an era when making negative assumptions about each other and pigeonholing them in a caricatured way is considered acceptable, even desirable. To “burn” someone or to “own” them, with a smirk, is given great cache.
There are several problems with this approach. It does not change hearts and minds. It may be fun for some and it may get a few laughs, but it is not functionally productive in terms of getting others to desire to truly understand our views and the reasons for them.
It is also self-diminishing. When we choose to disparage the other’s window without truly understanding them, we are nurturing a bitterness and smallness within ourselves. Every time we do this we are building up more and more of an unattractive part of our character. I heard a speaker once who said, “You sow a thought, you reap a behavior. You sow a behavior, you reap a character.” Sowing bitterness and smallness reaps a bitter and small character.
What we do impacts others. It can be tempting to think nothing we say or do impacts others. But of course it does. When we are bitter and small, we contribute to greater bitterness and smallness among those in our circles, which then ripples out to their contacts, and so forth.
A more difficult approach is what Yalom suggests: looking out the other’s window. It is required not only for effective psychotherapy, but for effective living. However, this requires more time, more connection, more thought, and more intentionality. We do not live in a way where we connect in the ways that are most helpful. We tend to have brief interactions, if any interactions at all, then make massive assumptions. Those assumptions may be true, in part, but we then fill in the rest of the details, projecting on to the person things that may or may not be true.
For more information or to book an appointment, contact John R. Day & Associates, Christian Psychological Associates, located at 3716 West Brighton Ave., Peoria—phone 309-692-7755 or 1520 East College Ave, Suite M in Normal—phone 309-319-7013. Visit us online at www.christianpsychological.org.