I was extremely blessed to have some amazing teachers in high school. One being my sophomore World History teacher, Mr. Paul. He was an insanely brilliant man who could have run the world but chose to run a classroom instead. Though I remember very little about the history part, I will never forget his lessons on the world. One of which was: “The phrase ‘you just don’t understand’ is stupid.”
He sang the word “stupid” in a way that made us laugh, but got our attention. He then went on to explain to a room of self-absorbed teenagers the concept of empathy. He said, “Just because someone hasn’t been in the exact situation as you, doesn’t mean they can’t understand your feelings.” We’ve all felt pain. We’ve all felt joy. We’ve all felt loneliness, depression and failure. The level of these feelings varies, but we’ve all felt them. Therefore, when you tell someone, “You just don’t understand,” you are essentially saying his or her feelings aren’t as real as yours. By navigating the world in this way, you end up isolating yourself from people who care.
This lesson, as simple as it may seem, has affected almost every friendship I’ve had since. The truth is my life hasn’t been all that challenging. I grew up in a healthy loving two-parent household and was never the victim of any major tragedies. So to me, the phrase “you just don’t understand” wasn’t something I felt but more something I felt was directed at me. I felt as if no one would want to talk to me about their problems because I had nothing to lend to their experience. Mr. Paul taught me I had something important to lend, empathy.
Just because my best friend hasn’t died doesn’t mean I can’t understand how painful it is that yours has. Just because I haven’t struggled with an eating disorder doesn’t mean I can’t give you support while you overcome yours. What we lack in experience we can make up for in empathy. I am now the friend everyone comes to with their problems and I love being the “Go To”. Whereas I may not be able to say, “I know exactly how you feel”, I am able to say, “I care.” Usually that’s enough.