We can only understand others to the extent and in the way that we understand ourselves.
This is the law of true empathy.
Through self-reflection, self-study, and self-improvement, our eyes are opened to the the struggles of others- because we face, or have faced, these same struggles personally.
Almost universally in the legends of mystical or religious traditions of the past, we see the image of the “wounded healer.” This figure is born as an individual who is faced with what should be a fatal injury or illness, yet is able to manage to find or develop the ability within them to heal themself. In doing so, the gods bless the individual with the power to heal others. They are granted the role of a shaman, medicine man, or messiah who is able to heal the sick or cleanse the soul of the people.
This myth is symbolic of the idea that through the acceptance, understanding, and conquering of an apparent tragedy (emotional trauma, a broken heart, the loss of innocence) we earn and are granted the power to cure the ill and give strength to the weak. This is what the redeemer and teacher figures like Christ and the Buddha, respectively, represent- the person who has defeated their own demons and can thus see and exorcise the demons of others.
An example of these concepts is the unfortunate and all-too common story of an individual who commits suicide, and the friends and family of the individual had no idea that said person even was suffering, let alone to such a terrible extent. How tragic it is that those who do not know despair themselves are blind to and helpless against the despair in another.
The seemingly innocuous phrase, “It takes one to know one” comes to mind, although in a different and darker context. Only those who are or have been broken have the eyes to see what the broken look like. Only those who have repaired themselves have learned the skill required to help repair another.
The greatest way to understand this is to reflect on a quote often attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There isn’t any evidence to suggest he did say this, although it may have arisen as a paraphrasing of a longer quote that I will touch on later. Regardless of the origin, the sentiment is excellent- although very simplified and apparently widely misunderstood- or even ignored.
What does it mean to actually be the change? Let’s begin with the opposite- the hypocrite, a person who does not practice what they preach. A religious leader who chooses to demonize the sins of others rather than to face the demons within themselves. A political activist who seeks government legislation to determine the conduct of others, rather than to act rightly themselves and serve as an example. A leader who asks something of his people something he would not or could not do for them.
To quote Matthew 7:3, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” Only the one who has cured his own blindness and opened his own eyes should be trusted to take the responsibility of helping another do the same. No one wants a blind surgeon or a sick doctor- no one needs the advice of someone who doesn’t understand the problem.
The closest quote officially attributed to Gandhi is as follows,
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
What Gandhi means with this is that as we slay our own demons and treat our own wounds, we become an example of the correct way to be- a role model, an inspirational figure, or an ideal thay others can learn from. It means that to genuinely affect the world in a positive way, we cannot simply complain about the way things are, point out the flaws of others, or talk about the way the world should be.
We are creatures blessed and burdened with the power of will, and fundamentally the first and last person responsible for our own life. If we cannot take the responsibility to be the best that we can be and to strive towards a noble morality, how could we possibly be qualified to know how another should live or how the world should be?
Heal yourself first, and perhaps we can prevent those sick with misery, suffering, and grief from going undiagnosed until it is too late.
Ask not the world to change- change yourself and you have changed the world. As we are a part of the world, so is the world a part of us. Perfect the world within you and you will have given the world without the greatest gift you possess-
your actualized potential, your ability to be great.
Greatness is what the world needs most right now.