Today I realized that I'm never as similar to other people as I think, but I'm also never as different.
I know this sounds like a contradiction, so let's break it down.
Imagine your friend asks you for relationship advice. The first thing you probably do is think about what you would do if you were in their situation. Would you confront your parter? Would you forgive them? Would you ignore, protect, or take revenge on them? Often, by putting ourself in another person's shoes, we can imagine what it's like for them.
And I think this is a good approach. But it can't end there. After you consider what you would do, you have to remember that your friend is not you, and their partner is definitely not your partner. So, take a moment to reflect on what's different about your friend's situation. Maybe your friend has different relationship goals than you. Maybe they're at a different point in their relationship. Maybe they (or their partner) have a different set of emotional tools that warrant an alternative response.
In any case, it's almost certain that my friend is not identical to me, and by remembering to take a moment to reflect on these differences, I am far better prepared to offer sound advice.
Now, let's consider the inverse.
You pass a homeless drug addict lying on the ground in the park and feel as distant from that person as you feel from, say, the park bench. How could you possibly relate to that person's experiences? What knowledge do I, Daniel Rhodes, have of the challenges and opportunities that arise from homelessness, addiction, and extreme poverty? It seems obvious that I'm just radically different from the listless figure that I take extra care to avoid.
But, if I take a moment to consider it, is that man really so strange to me? He experiences the same sense of fear, hope, and desire that punctuate my day just as well as his. I'm sure he wants food, shelter, and a loving touch; I can identify with that. Maybe we even enjoy the same music, or flavor of pizza, or the feel of the cool breeze on summer mornings. More importantly, we are both humans, both men, both New Yorkers born during the second half of the 20th century, and the list goes on. Relative to the trillions of objects that fill this world, I and the man in the park are nearly identical.
While our particular experiences are certainly very different, psychology has taught us that humans are far more alike than we'd ever imagined. As the ancient playwright, Terence, wrote: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto" [I am human, nothing human is alien to me].
Something which Sam Harris mentions a lot is that even if I can't bring myself to love or appreciate the way that a particular person turned out, I can always love and appreciate who they were as a child. And weren't we all children at some point? Isn't there always a child deep inside of us somewhere?
I know that I am different than the homeless man in the park. But I also know that I'm not as different as I think.