What you see is what you get — A visit to a Quaker community

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Psychology, says that 90% of what we see is projection. It is pretty well known that witness testimony can be unreliable. This story is a nice example of why seeing should not be believing. And, if we will work well for social justice and human rights, we need to be able to ‘play well with others’, we need to be able to share clear and accurate empathy for each others’ circumstances, situations, beliefs, practices and feelings.

The story is a well known Quaker story, told by Kenneth Boulding in his article “the ethics of rational decision” which was published in Management Science, vol 12, no 6 pp 161 -169.

In the story a Quaker Friend  was asked by a new comer to his community, what type of people lived there.

The Quaker asks the newcomer, “Well, sir, what kind of people did you live among before you came to be here?”

The newcomer replied, “Oh, I lived among a mean, suspicious, unfriendly, treacherous bunch of people.”

Whereupon the Quaker replied, “Well, I am very sorry, sir, but you will probably find the same type of people here.”

Going down the road, the Quaker meets another newcomer to the community, who asks him the very same question about the kind of people she can expect to encounter in the new community. And the Quaker similarly asks her, “What kind of people did you live among before you came to be here?”

“Oh,” said the woman, “I lived among a fine group of people, friendly and honest, and I was heartfelt sorry to leave them.”

Whereupon the Quaker said, “I am glad to say, friend, you will find the same kind of people here.”

Clear and accurate empathy was NOT the strong suit in the expectations voiced in this story. It is kind of a humors example of projection. Empathy for others is tricky business.  Without significant self awareness empathy is not possible. Our expectations and personal biases frame and shape the meanings we attribute to experiences and interactions. To develop empathy for others, we need set aside our personal biases and to “feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world, to feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and to understand, in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities (Rukeyser, 1949, 1974, 1996, p. x).”

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