I’ve heard it a lot as of late…
“You don’t know what it’s like to be a black man…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be gay…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with only one parent…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be adopted…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be divorced…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to have a disability…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to lose a child…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to experience chronic pain…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to not be able to make ends meet…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to file for bankruptcy…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be bullied…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be fired…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be in combat…”
“You don’t know what it’s like to watch your best friend die…”
You don’t know what it’s like.
Many have noted the division in this country — a division that seems to sprout in almost any societal subject, subjects that used to be solidly safe for finding conversation and common ground. While many have theories in regard to the reason, part of me wonders if the division is due to our continued proclamation that “you don’t know what it’s like.”
As long as we contend “you don’t know what it’s like,” we give ourselves full freedom to dismiss another’s perspective… in it’s entirety.
Let us acknowledge the wisdom of walking in a mile in another’s shoes. In reality, it’s true that we don’t know what all of the above is like. And so when we are willing to walk in the shoes of another, we see a different perspective… a different, valid perspective. When we are willing to see that —to put those other shoes on, so-to-speak — our potential for empathy increases exponentially.
My desire is that we see the “you don’t know what it’s like” not as a unending, wounding source of division, but rather, as an avenue for empathy.
Let’s get a little more personal… I am the parent of a son with Down syndrome. That means that he is at a significantly higher risk for hearing loss, sleep apnea, ear infections, eye disease, heart defects, intestinal blockage, hip dislocation, thyroid disease, anemia, iron deficiency, leukemia, blood disorders, Alzheimer’s, a lower life expectancy, and as most know, a significantly lower IQ. The list goes on.
In fact, as many are also aware, Joshua was born with a congenital heart defect; he was missing most of the wall in his heart where the two flaps come to meet. Prior to scheduled surgical repair, however, he came down with a serious respiratory virus which threatened his life. We spent most of March 2002 in the cardiac ICU wing, praying to God to heal our son, as we watched him lay fairly motionless, the respirator breathing for him. That was an incredibly challenging, painful time.
Now, since only 1 in every 700 babies is born with Down syndrome, that means 699 of you cannot relate to what we experienced. You don’t know what it’s like.
But if I choose to fiercely adhere to you not knowing, then I will miss other aspects that you have the potential to offer…
When Josh laid motionless in that hospital, I needed support, respect, and community. I needed the physical help, emotional encouragement, and spiritual support of the people around me. I needed the countless number of people who didn’t “know what it was like” but still chose to be present… who brought us meals, filled our thermos, cared for our other kids, gave us a break, cleaned our house, and offered fervent, selfless prayers on behalf. I needed those people… all “699” of them.
Rather than see our lack of knowing what it’s like as source of division, it seems so much wiser and beneficial to view such as an avenue for empathy — a way through which we can build authentic community. That is so much healthier than division.