Considering I live with colourblind brothers, this topic comes up a LOT in our house and amongst our friends. It is at once a topic for banter, humour, and philosophy. Colourblindness is probably the best(?) disability to have since it doesn’t really affect your day-to-day life unless of course you want to be an engineer, pilot, police officer or interior designer. Some people don’t even realise they are colourblind and therefore live their lives blissfully unaware that they are wearing a navy suit jacket with black pants to work…
As a child I often wondered what it would be like to experience the word through the eyes of another person. I never went so extreme as to wonder what it would be like to grow up in Africa or Italy (though I did fantasise about living in the nostalgic past of my novels). It was more a question of “I wonder if the sky looks blue to other people?” “What if the sea looked red to my mum?” “What does chocolate taste like to someone who likes it?”*
What makes this so fascinating (and at times frustrating) is you cannot climb inside the consciousness of another person which means we can never actually know what it is like to experience something (sight, smell, feel, taste, sound, love, grief, curiosity…) from another’s perspective. This is a concept that is as diverting for me as an adult as it was when I was a child.
Since we cannot actually experience the world through another’s eyes, we can expand upon this as a lesson in empathy: never assume that you know what another person is going through. Seemingly innocuous events or experiences could completely rock someone else’s world whilst having absolutely no impact upon you.
The analogy that Michael gives in the above video is of an alien who comes to earth but lacks the ability to feel pain. No matter how well humans describe the experience and no matter how well the alien understands the biology and chemistry of pain, it will never actually know or understand what it feels like to be in pain.
This concept is particularly pertinent to me and my personal experience of chronic pain, which I am sure is similar to the experience of others – no one ever gets it. As hard as Jase might try to describe what it is like to be colourblind, I will understand it as much as he will understand what it is like to live with pain, everyday, for most of your life – meaning, not at all. We can, however, empathise with each other and make allowances: he lifts heavy things for me and I go clothes shopping with him.
But we don’t even have to go that far. Have you ever tried to explain a dream you had, a place you visited, or the feeling of being in the front row of a concert only to realise you cannot possibly communicate effectively enough to allow another person to truly understand what it felt like to soar through the sky, see the paint strokes in the Sistine Chapel, or feel in your bones vibrate from the combination of bass and 10,000 people stomping the ground as the band delivered their encore? You simply cannot, because another person cannot jump inside your head and experience what you experienced.
That said, we, as humans, are storytellers. We want to share our experiences with others even (or especially) if they weren’t there with us at the time. We need to externalise and talk through and philosophise with other people in order to create meaning or validation for what happens to us. This is why we are so open to hearing about another person’s story and why we get so upset, disheartened, frustrated, or angry when the person we are trying to communicate with is uninterested, interrupts, plays with their phone, or simply launches into their own story after clearly not caring that we were just speaking.
This is where mindfulness is super handy – stay in the moment of the conversation and focus on listening openly and with empathy. It is one of the most rewarding ways to practice mindfulness as it can have the effect of strengthening your relationships and even expanding your awareness and experience of the world by allowing others to share their differing perspective on it.
Next time a storytelling human launches into a yarn, don’t inwardly roll your eyes or mentally consult your shopping list or start thinking about a similar experience that happened to you that you can fling onto the other person. Simply be silent. Keep eye contact. Listen with empathy and open ears.
You may just experience something new…
*What can I say? I was a strange kid who (thankfully) turned into a perfectly normal and not at all weird** chocolate addicted adult.
**Lies, lies, all of it. Well, I am chocolate addicted, but as for being normal…yikes…