The maxim, ‘walk a mile in the others shoes,’ sounds simplistic but it just reflects the reality that the theoretical may be insightful and important but it will never replace the experiential.
So many things happen in life and so many things pull us toward forming some sort of opinion, some more inclined by nature than others, but everyone does it.
There are the opinions sourced in the theoretical, the foundation of many of the greatest advances in human existence, both at the general and the individual, whether it involves raising children, slavery or the movement of the planets, and then there are opinions sourced in the experiential. The latter will always be the most substantive.
Science at its best works on the basis of opinions formed through theory which are then subjected to the experiential. Religion at its best does the same. Life does it automatically.
It becomes clear, well, to me anyway, that the reason life contains so much in the way of experience, more for some than for others, is that true understanding can only ever come from experience. In other words, you can know all there is to know and think for a thousand years about something, but until you experience it at a physical, psychological, emotional, sometimes spiritual and always circumstantial level where all of the senses are in play, you can never really understand it or the person who has had the experience.
It is one thing to think about something and another to experience it, to feel it in your own unique way. I have changed my mind about a couple of things in recent years where I did not understand someone’s situation and felt accountability was equally shared or not enough effort was made, only to find myself in the same sorts of situations and to realise that is not always the case.
Few would argue that a cricket coach who knew every shred of theory and had plenty of his own but had never played the game could be as effective or as knowledgeable as one who had both theory and experience. Few would argue that a doctor who knew all of the theory but who had never practised could be as qualified as one who had done both.
Nothing beats experience and in fact if you had to sacrifice theory for experience you would make a wise choice. But mostly we don’t And the fact is, there are many things we will never experience and many things we would never want to experience. And that should not stop us thinking about them or forming opinions, but it should make us think twice when we share those opinions with someone who has had the experience.
No-one who has not given birth can ever understand the experience of giving birth and that means all men and many women. No-one who has never been divorced can really understand what it is like. No-one who has never faced the decision of an abortion, and that means all men and many women, can ever understand that experience.
No-one who has never experienced depression, anxiety or the death of someone they love deeply, or the loss of someone they love deeply for other reasons, will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like. It is just not possible. You can read all you want about anything or any place in the world, but until you are physically there, emotionally and psychologically exposed, you will never be able to know what it is like, whether it is India or Anxiety; Poverty or Wealth; Depression or Disability, and therein lies something which needs to be appreciated.
In other words, the lesson which has come to me in recent years is, if you have not had a particular experience then form your opinions cautiously and leave them open, recognising that those who had had the particular experience will always know more than you can, however insightful your opinions and theories may be.
And on the other side, have compassion for those who have not experienced what you have if and when you try to explain to them what you have been through, because without the same or similar experience, they will never be able to truly understand.
That is just the nature of things. The other important lesson is that even when you experience something it does not mean that your experience is exactly the same as someone else. We are all unique.
What it does mean though is that the more we experience in life the more we deepen our capacity to understand ourselves and others. Particularly with experiences which are painful, for they dig deeper than any into the depths of heart and mind.
No experience is wasted. Value them all and weigh them carefully with your theories.