Erich Fromm writes:
“This attitude towards the ‘stranger’ is inseparable from the attitude towards oneself. As long as any fellow human being is experienced as fundamentally different from myself, as long as he remains a stranger, I remain a stranger to myself too. When I experience myself fully, then I recognise that I am the same as any other human being, that I am the child, the sinner, the saint, the one who hopes and the one who despairs, the one who can feel joy and the one who can feel sadness. I discover that only the thought concepts, the customs, and the surface are different, and that the human substance is the same. I discover that I am everybody, and that I discover myself in discovering my fellow man, and vice versa. In this experience, in this I discover what humanity is, I discover the One man”.
One of the great challenges that humanity faces today is how to overcome the sense of separateness that creates so much division and conflict – within humans, between humans, and between humans and the more-than-human world. It is quite clear that the human race as a whole needs an education in empathy and understanding. How do we achieve this?
Fromm talked about the importance of the ‘direct encounter’. This is a meeting with oneself or another, or an idea, nature etc. that is not hindered by preconceptions and expectations, where we encounter the thing directly, without distortion, as it is in itself. Encountering oneself or the other are two sides of the same coin. Those unconscious or unknown aspects of myself are the ‘other’ in myself, while encountering the other person, is coming into contact with my self in the other because ‘Nothing which is human is alien to me’. The otherness I meet in the other is simply an unconscious aspect in myself.
In the practice of discovering and dialoguing with different parts of ourselves we become more fully human by experiencing the full range and richness of our humanity. The same when we encounter others and see ourselves in them – we are expanding our sense of self, coming to recognise our common humanity, seeing that we are made of the same substance and what unites us is greater that what divides us.
Instead of judging and criticising we can choose to open and encounter the other. We do this through a willingness to move towards otherness and refrain from defensiveness and reactivity, but instead open to what it can teach us. This is how we create in our selves the capacity for empathy and understanding that is so needed in the world.