Early in the book To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch gives his daughter some advice. He says, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Unfortunately, our human nature makes it easier to notice the faults, blind spots and mistaken beliefs of others. It’s much more difficult to see flaws in our own thoughts, ideas, opinions, choices, beliefs, likes and dislikes. We tend to jump to a defensive posture if anyone questions what we think and believe.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. We can fight our more natural tendencies by practicing humility. As Atticus suggests, this practice means working to set aside ego and step into the skin of the other. It means seeking to understand the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of people that may differ from our own. Practicing humility helps us avoid our knee-jerk tendency to prove ourselves right and others wrong.
And the truth is, there’s always at least a nugget of truth in the thoughts and beliefs of those who disagree with us, even those who hold irreconcilable, opposing positions. What do we have to lose by exploring their views and perspectives? Will we forget or lose our own beliefs?! Highly unlikely.
Although few of us would admit it, we often experience a sophomoric sense of satisfaction when we make dismissive, condescending and disparaging remarks about the flawed views of others. We feel smarter, wiser and more righteous when we are able to point out how wrong they are. We think it proves how right we are. And it enhances our sense of belonging to the group that shares our perspective. But what does this holier-than-thou attitude get us? How do we benefit? Have we improved anything?
It’s much more difficult and far less popular to humble ourselves, suspend our own firmly held beliefs and embrace those we desperately want to dismiss and prove wrong. Engaging in this practice opens a path to sympathy and understanding.
We will always have the ability to fall back to the safety of our well-established beliefs and perspectives. We can always return to the company of those who agree with us. But perhaps if we make a temporary visit to someone else’s world we’ll return with a slightly altered, broadened and more evolved view of the real world. It may be a world that lies somewhere between our views and those of our opponents. Even if we return to a position of disagreement, or even resistance, at least we’ll return there with a more informed perspective.
If we aren’t willing to humble ourselves and take the first step in understanding, accepting and sympathizing with the views of others, we’ll never be able to create a culture of tolerance and understanding. Our holier-than-thou attitudes will set the tone and either create or perpetuate divisiveness, disagreement and misunderstanding in the culture around us.
We can be the ones to take the first step. The best way to begin is by setting aside our egos, and climbing into and walking around in the skin of another.
This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.
Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.