People often say they find it easier to empathize with individuals with whom they share a history or religion or culture or occupation than with individuals with whom they feel they have little in common. At first blush it makes sense; you figure you can more easily appreciate what someone else is going through once you’ve “been there” or at least know a bunch of other people who have been there. At the very least, you are familiar with some of the circumstances. But by complacently accepting this idea that, in order to understand other people, you have to walk a mile in their shoes, we’ve trained ourselves not to expect to easily understand or empathize with somebody who is different from us. And so, following the path of any other self-fulfilling prophecy, we find ourselves needlessly flummoxed or uncomprehending or impassive in the face of a stranger’s pain.

In one of my favorite stories from graduate school, a client asks her therapist how he would ever be able to understand her grief over losing her husband if he hadn’t gone through a similar experience. And he replied softly with, “I don’t have to be seven feet tall in order to know what it feels like to be self-conscious in public.” We all have experiences we can use to help bridge the gap between what others tell us and what we understand. Compassionate witnessing aids us in recognizing our shared humanity and restoring it when it falters. It might also be one of the best vehicles the global community has for thwarting the pernicious process of dehumanization that makes it too easy for too many to decide others’ fates.

— Janet Sasson Edgette