Standing in someone else’s shoes still comes short of understanding another person.
By stepping into another’s shoes, one is supposed to put oneself in the other’s situation and understand how the other is feeling.
Many children are reprimanded with this command when they mistreat their friends or disregard their crying siblings.
This aphorism, however, does not consider the many other factors that affect one’s psychological state: for example, one’s culture, one’s past and one’s upbringing. These factors shape one’s mental schema, the lens through which one perceives the world.
Without at least recognizing the existence of these important influences, one cannot fully understand the other in his current circumstances.
Culture affects the way in which someone learns to organize the world into categories. For example, the concepts of colors, numbers, space and time all shape the way one understands the world around him.
Different cultures view these concepts differently.
The Himba people in Africa categorize colors in a very distinct way. They use broad categories, dividing the visible light spectrum into dark shades, light shades, blue-green shades and earth tones. They therefore see the world in a remarkably different way than Westerners do because of their less specific categories.
The ancient Greeks did not have a word for blue because they did not have much access to blue dyes. It is believed, therefore, that they did not see the color blue, as they did not have a word for it.
The Pirahã people in the Brazilian Amazon do not have any conception of color. Some think that they can distinguish between larger and smaller amounts of objects, but they cannot quantify them.
All this goes to show that people of different cultures experience the world differently.
On a more personal note, one’s life experiences affect how he sees the world.
For example, a traumatic childhood incident may scar someone permanently, and when he experiences a similar situation, he may be jolted back into the horror of the initial incident.
One can see this in both Freud’s concept of regression and Nietzsche’s discussion of ressentiment.
In Freud’s regression, the dreadful event is re-experienced when it is brought to mind.
In Nietzsche, the qualities associated with the more powerful person, even when seen somewhere else, trigger a feeling of ressentiment in the weaker person. Another’s red hair may remind one of the red-headed bully from middle school, such that one re-experiences the bullying every time one sees red hair.
Although an extreme example, this shows that the experiences in one’s life are ingrained in who one is, and they affect how one accommodates one’s mental schema to new situations.
Whenever you try to understand someone’s perspective, you not only need to step into his shoes. You must also put on his glasses and pick up his luggage.
By understanding the other’s current circumstances, his mental schema and his past experiences, you can finally begin to understand him. There is still a limit to language, however, which cannot fully communicate the richness of emotion, thought and sensation that is the human experience.
Only through a lifelong friendship can one become the closest to knowing the other.
In fact, Aristotle quoted by the ancient biographer Laërtius, describes friends as “one soul abiding in two bodies.”