The Common Good

How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything

Strange but beautiful things happen when we begin to identify with people who are culturally different. A few years ago, I became friends with Peter, a guy at my church who also happened to be an undocumented immigrant. One day over lunch, he shared that his mother (whom he hadn’t seen in 15+ years) had recently been diagnosed with a terminal disease. He desperately wanted to visit her, but due to his immigration status, he knew that if he left the U.S. he wouldn’t be allowed to return. Given his obligations to his family in the U.S., Peter made the heart-breaking decision to not to visit his dying mom.

As a U.S. citizen, I hadn’t personally experienced the trials of being undocumented or felt the frustration of geographic immobility while a loved one approached death in a far off land. But throughout my friendship with Peter — getting to know his family in the U.S., listening to him share about the harrowing challenges he experienced on a daily basis, and seeing photographs of his life and family in his home country — I got a glimpse of the world from his perspective. In many ways, Peter’s life was marked by sorrow and loss – and that was more evident than ever during our lunch conversation that day.

While listening to him talk about his mom, I felt an urge to offer to travel to his home country to visit her on his behalf. It struck me as something that would mean the world to both of them.

At first the idea seemed crazy to me; it violated my individualistic American sensibilities. Why would I embark on an international journey for someone who wasn’t my significant other, or even related to me? Why did I care so much about the characters in a story that was so different than my own?

I’m no goody-goody, but I couldn’t shake the idea. In the course of being friends with Peter, I had begun to identify with him, his family, and his story.  Once I saw the world from his perspective, my myopic individualistic viewpoint was broadened to include his too. And that changed everything – how I viewed myself, how I was willing to spend my money and time, and the extent to which I felt connected to people with perspectives, problems, and homelands that were nothing like my own.

*****

When we identify with people, we extend our hearts and hands to them.

Social psychologists have discovered that when we become close friends with people, we literally expand our sense of self to include them in it.* As a result, we naturally incorporate their perspective into our perspective, their resources become our resources (and vice versa), their failures become our failures**, and we take up their causes as if they were our own causes. In short, we identify with them.

This “self-other overlap” even occurs between people who are culturally different.  A 2009 study showed that when non-blacks identify with blacks, they are much more likely to advocate for social policies and programs that specifically benefit black people.^

Indeed, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass described white abolitionist John Brown in this way: “though a white gentleman, [he] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”^^

This is the level of cross-cultural unity to which the Apostle Paul calls us in Philippians 2:2 when he writes, “… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” Paul urges us to be of one mind, to share brain space, to get inside each other’s head and emotions, and to expand our sense of self to include culturally different others.  

This is why films like 12 Years A Slave are so important. Christians of all colors must listen to each other’s stories, learn of each other’s pain and take up each other’s causes. One important step is to gather in culturally diverse groups to watch films like 12 Years A Slave (and other films that highlight various cultural histories/experiences), and create spaces for us to discuss topics like slavery’s enduring legacy of inequality in the U.S.*** In doing so, we begin the process of expanding our sense of self to include people who are culturally different than us and allowing our souls to be pierced with the irons of the unjust experiences of our brothers and sisters.

*****

Four months after my lunch conversation with Peter, I travelled to his native country to visit his mom.  That week I learned what it meant to be part of the family of God.

May our expanded selves and pierced souls energize and direct our actions.

Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart


* Aron, A., Aron, E.N., Tudor, M., Nelson, G., 1991. Close relationships as including other in the self.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60 (2), 241–253.

** Kang, S., Hirsh, J., & Chasteen, A. (2010). Your mistakes are mine: Self-other overlap predicts neural response to observed errors, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 229-232.

^ Craemer, T. (2009). Psychological ‘self–other overlap’ and support for slavery reparations. Social Science Research, 38, 668-680.

^^ Reynolds, D.S., 2005. John Brown, Abolitionist. The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Knopf, New York, NY.

*** See Bertocchi & Dimico (2012) for a thorough discussion of the economic ramifications of slavery that continue to plague out racialized society today.

Image: Antique statues, neko92vl / Shutterstock.com

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