Human beings naturally group people into those we identify with and “others.” We understand and empathize with “our” kind of people, but simplify others into stereotyped models. We treat our family, school, city, country, race, sport team, political or sexual identity, or whatever with various degrees of familiarity.
And then perhaps we travel to another city or country or social circle and meet some people who are different. Perhaps we get to know some of them. And when we return to our old grounds and see someone from the new group we have gotten to know, perhaps we feel a little different and a little less “otherness” about them. Perhaps we repeat this process a few more times. Everyone does this to some extent.
I think some people always feel a need to categorize other human beings into “us” and “them.” But travel allows some of us to make a generalization about human beings: there is no “us” and “them.” There are only human beings, and we all have dreams and fears and hopes. You can call that awareness empathy — the intellectual and emotional integration of the knowledge that other beings have a consciousness just as you are conscious. Even animals and plants, in their own ways. Maybe for some people this is natural, but I think for the vast majority it is something that has to be learned. This is one of the virtues of travel. Unfortunately, I think many people are never really aware of their own consciousness, so cannot see it in others. They see only the meaningless, superficial traits of physical appearance and cultural trivia.
I think once you see parts of yourself in others, it changes how you treat people. If you come to learn that you are flawed and believe in and love the good in you nonetheless, you will love it in others. You still see the good and the bad — without expecting the same understanding in return. You will not feel hate or anger because they are different from you. You will celebrate their values just as you celebrate yours and maybe feel some sadness when you see the consequences of bad ideas, but only in the sense of a lost opportunity, not as a wall between you or a fault which you must correct.
To accept the values of others as inherently justified is to accept other people as ends in themselves, just as your life is an end in itself. Accepting that others are ends in themselves means accepting self-ownership, and this is the key to peaceful, non-violent coexistence.
To recognize the commonality of life is also a means come to terms with mortality. Your life is important and unique, but it is just one combination of many. That particular combination will never exist again, but many other sets containing the same values and ideas will. The meaning of life is creating an aesthetic and authentic expression of elements, not mere survival.
Does the idea of universal empathy seem like a utopian dream? It’s an ideal — not a destination, but a direction. But I think it’s a path which contains some truth and practical usefulness.
Self-understanding is a requirement for other-understanding. We build models of other people’s consciousness by applying our self-image to them. At the same time, we form our own self-image by observing and interacting with other people. It’s necessarily synergistic process. As we come to know others, we discover ourselves. As we discover our own nature, we better understand the actions of others. And if we learn to love ourselves (and I believe that value is a necessary facet of all knowledge), we learn to love others — all others.
When I speak of universal love, I do not mean an abstract, unconditional, and ignorant kind of love, but of love which comes from understanding and seeing our ideas and values in others. And not just a few values which our conscious mind labels as important, but all values — values as such. Not that thin slice which is a shared background, but everything that makes us — us. We may disagree with ideas on the abstract level but still appreciate the broad base we all share. The taste of our favorite foods, and the hugs of those we love, and the reason we go to work every day, and the hero-worship and the starry nights and taste of the water we drink. To see and to value this in all people on a deep intellectual-emotional level is an essential part of self-understanding.