Can people perceive how others experience the world from their own perspective? (IRVIN D. YALOM)

Can people perceive how others experience the world from their own perspective? (IRVIN D. YALOM)

I awake from my dream at 3 a.m., weeping into my pillow. Moving quietly, so as not to disturb Marilyn, I slip out of bed and into the bathroom, dry my eyes, and follow the directions I have given to my patients for fifty years: close your eyes, replay your dream in your mind, and write down what you have seen.

I am about ten, perhaps eleven. I am biking down a long hill only a short distance from home. I see a girl named Alice sitting on her front porch. She seems a bit older than me and is attractive even though her face is covered with red spots. I call out to her as I bike by, “Hello, Measles.”

Suddenly a man, exceedingly large and frightening, stands in front of my bicycle and brings me to a stop by grabbing my handlebars. Somehow I know that this is Alice’s father.

He calls out to me: “Hey, you, whatever your name is. Think for a minute—if you can think—and answer this question. Think about what you just said to my daughter and tell me one thing: How did that make Alice feel?”

I am too terrified to answer.

“Cummon, answer me. You’re Bloomingdale’s kid [My father’s grocery store was named Bloomingdale Market and many customers thought our name was Bloomingdale] and I bet you’re a smart Jew. So go ahead, guess what Alice feels when you say that.”

I tremble. I am speechless with fear.

“All right, all right. Calm down. I’ll make it simple. Just tell me this: Do your words to Alice make her feel good about herself or bad about herself?”

All I can do is mumble, “I dunno.”

“Can’t think straight, eh? Well, I’m gonna help you think. Suppose I looked at you and picked some bad feature about you and comment on it every time I see you?” He peers at me very closely. “A little snot in your nose, eh? How about ‘snotty’? Your left ear is bigger than your right. Supposed I say, ‘Hey, “fat ear”’ every time I see you? Or how about ‘Jew Boy’? Yeah, how about that? How would you like that?”

I realize in the dream that this is not the first time I have biked by this house, that I’ve been doing this same thing day after day, riding by and calling out to Alice with the same words, trying to initiate a conversation, trying to make friends. And each time I shouted, “Hey, Measles,” I was hurting her, insulting her. I am horrified—at the harm I’ve done, all these times, and at the fact that I could’ve been so blind to it.

When her father finishes with me, Alice walks down the porch stairs and says in a soft voice, “Do you want to come up and play?” She glances at her father. He nods.

“I feel so awful,” I answer. “I feel ashamed, so ashamed. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…”

Since early adolescence, I’ve always read myself to sleep, and for the past two weeks I have been reading a book called Our Better Angels by Steven Pinker. Tonight, before the dream, I had read a chapter on the rise of empathy during the Enlightenment, and how the rise of the novel, particularly British epistolary novels like Clarissa and Pamela, may have played a role in decreasing violence and cruelty by helping us to experience the world from another’s viewpoint. I turned out the lights about midnight, and a few hours later I awoke from my nightmare about Alice.




BECOMING MYSELF: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir
Irvin D. Yalom



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