People are very complicated. They are so different from us that we cannot safely project our thoughts, feelings or motives into them. We cannot read their interiors by looking at their exteriors.

I hope you can coax out of your memory, like I can, one instance in which you thought you had correctly read the motives and intentions of another, and then discovered that the hidden reality was totally different. I hope you have been shocked and surprised, for example, to find under a wreath of smiles an empty loneliness. I hope you have found out from personal experience just how mysterious we human beings can be. Our mistaken judgments make us reevaluate our ability to read minds and judge intentions.

Sometimes I’ve been wrong by inches but mostly by miles. I have been wrong every time I have tried to read minds and judge intentions. And so I have concluded that the only way to know what someone else is thinking or intending is simply to ask that person. Obviously we are all somewhat deceived about ourselves, and so what another would tell us in answer to our questions may not always be accurate or even truthful. But it sure beats our best guesses. Furthermore, asking always promotes an exchange of communication. Just as surely mind reading and judging tend to break down the lines of communication and separate people.

Human beings are simply too complicated and too different for our guesswork. Sometimes by inches and sometimes by miles, but there is always a surprise waiting for us in the inner truth of another! Here’s hoping you like surprises.

An old Native American saying reminds us that, “to truly understand another human being, we must first walk a mile in his or her moccasins.” To this I would like to add the suggestion that we cannot walk in another’s moccasins until we first take off our own. We have to make a real effort as listeners to get out of ourselves, to unshackle ourselves from our personal preoccupations, and to donate our presence and availability to others. So let’s exchange our shoes and walk a mile together.

It seems to me that the key to success in understanding and loving others is empathy. Empathy starts with an attentive listening and an intuitive reading of the uniqueness and surprise of another. Empathy asks only one question: “What is it like to be you?” Empathy is getting inside the skin of another, walking in his or her shoes, seeing and experiencing reality as it looks through the eyes of another. In the end, empathy offers not advice but only understanding, “Oh, yes, I hear you.” When I empathize with you, I leave where I am and I go to be with you where you are.

For me the invitation to empathy begins with this question: “What is it like to be you?” And if I am really asking this question in relating to another, that other will hear my question as a statement of concern: “I care.” Whether we are mourning or celebrating, it is difficult for us humans to be alone. An empathetic reaction on the part of another is consoling and reassuring. It says in a clear and undeniable way, “You are not alone. I am with you because I care.”