How I See the World: Some Brief Thoughts on Empathy
Today, I had a Eureka moment. Or, in the common parlance, a “DUDE THIS IS SO COOL!” moment.
Mara Wilson – former child actor and current awesome writer – tweeted a blog post about her sister. In the post, Wilson talked about how her sister Anna is a “synesthete,” or someone who see sounds and words and letters as corresponding to particular colors. Upon reading the Wikipedia article about synesthesia, I realized something – I am a number-form synesthete.
For as long as I can remember, numbers and dates and months and years have occupied geographic space. The year forms a clockwise loop, with December and January meeting to close the loop. The summer months are at the widest part of the loop, occupying the largest geographic space, and December squishes into a smaller geographic space. February, despite being the shortest month in the year occupies a larger geographic space than any of the other winter months – likely because it’s my birth month, and my brain assigned it greater importance.
In addition, months of the year have certain corresponding colors. January is a light Baby-Blue, February is Pink, March is Green, April is yellow, May is a lighter yellow-almost white, June is teal-ish, and July and August don’t really have color. Color picks up again with September being red, October being Orange, November being brown, and December being white. Because these colors seemed to logically (at least, to me) correspond to what you would think a month is (red for the beginning of Autumn, for example), I never bothered to mention it to anyone.
All my life, I've just assumed that everyone else had maps of the year in their head that may/may not be similar to mine. It never occurred to me that something so basic as how one sees the calendar year could vary so much in between people. Within a few seconds this morning, my entire world shifted and grew larger.
Perhaps part of the issue of continuing disagreement in human life and, more narrowly, the church isn’t necessarily chalked up to the theodicy explanation of “brokenness” and “sin,” but to the simple fact that some people literally see the world differently. People literally experience God in different ways.
This is basic, obviously. But this is absolutely vital to the practice of empathy. Synesthesia is a concrete example of how some people simply approach the world in a different way. Now, I’m not proposing that some theologies and theological stances are hardwired and therefore we shouldn’t discuss them. Instead, I think synesthesia provides us with a metaphor for how we can have grace within those situations. We can realize that someone doesn’t see the map the same way we do, that what is obvious and plain reading to one person looks like a twisting and turning of the map to others.
Perhaps, we all need reminders that the world looks, quite literally, different to other people.