Yesterday’s post described how interacting with a former Austrian soldier, now friend’s grandfather led me to examine my values. Such interactions lead you to expand your understanding of others and of humanity as well.
Let’s understand the situation. Comparing people to Nazis has become an internet joke (perhaps insightful) called Godwin’s Law. This situation isn’t that. This man was a Nazi foot soldier, proud of some aspects of it. I’m not comparing or judging, only using the real-life situation to examine values from a perspective beyond most people’s every day experience.
I posted this anecdote because it’s been on my mind since posting this exercise in improving your empathy three weeks ago. That post got more response and feedback than most others.
You can read or re-read it if it isn’t fresh, but briefly, it asks you to look at the world from other people’s perspectives and to try to explain their behavior without saying they are different from you — rather saying they are as rational, peaceful, and respectful as you. Nazis are often called monsters and inhuman. In most cases, asking someone to think like a Nazi is abhorrent.
But this guy was a close friend’s grandfather and we were in a Norman Rockwell painting. How abhorrent is it to think like your friend’s grandfather? How much of a monster is someone whose motivations echo those you hear of others all around you?
As I wrote in that exercise,
[The most challenging] applications of this exercise, [where you try to believe what someone you disagree with] can be tremendously challenging. You still have all the tools to do them. They can feel immoral, unethical, and objectionable, until you realize no one is going to be hurt. It’s just a mental exercise. Then you do it and suddenly you see the world differently, you understand someone you never thought you would have, you understand yourself better, and you learn to communicate and influence others in ways you never thought you could have.
For many, applying the exercise to this situation — to try to see from the perspective of a Nazi — is borderline impossible. Yet this man existed in flesh and blood. I met him. Before the exercise, I couldn’t help imagine what motivated him to show the photographs.
He did, though, so there was something new in the world for me to understand. And doing so expanded my horizons to understand humanity in an area I hadn’t before, or at least begin to understand.
You can do it too, and expand your horizons as well. Put yourself on an Austrian farm in the 1930s as a young man. Your country drafts you to fight. The term Nazi and the name Hitler mean nothing then like what they mean now, so you have to forget what we know now to understand that situation.
Most people respond to this perspective by saying what they would do or whether they think his behavior is right or wrong. Those are interesting perspectives, but they are evaluative. They don’t increase your empathy like doing the exercise. What are your motivations? What are your values? How do those values conflict or not?
Do you presume that he thinks about fighting for his country like any young man does when faced with a draft? How do you decide what to do?
Here is the hard part. Can you explain him making his decisions without saying he is different than you? If not, why would you say he was different before faced with decisions he didn’t create? If so, would you make the same decisions? Any answer to that question is difficult, at least to me.
My goal in posing these questions is not to be difficult or to resolve what he should or shouldn’t have done. The goal is to expand one’s sphere of empathy and understand one’s values better. Keep in mind, I’m just asking about my friend’s grandfather, whose house I chanced to walk through, invited.
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