There are some spiritual traditions that advise their students to change their identities for a while, to choose a different life and go live as that identity to see what it’s like. The purpose of this spiritual exercise is to develop understand and empathy for others, to help us remove the barriers that exist between us so that we can feel the oneness with all life.
A current example of this is a television program where a CEO of a company goes undercover (aptly enough, the show was called Undercover Boss). The CEO becomes an employee doing an assortment of the tough and stressful jobs that are part of the business. The executive has an eye-opening experience as he sees how hard some of the work is and in some cases how badly the employees are treated by their managers. After the experience there are usually positive changes that are made that benefit both the company and the employees.
Imagine a society matron spending a week as a domestic, a lawyer spending a week as a farmer, a farmer spending a week as a policeman—the possibilities are endless. If we can understand what others go through, we are on the road to developing compassion and empathy and seeing the oneness of all creation. While this would be an extremely interesting experiment, we don’t need to totally enter another’s life to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. We can and do enter different personas within our own lives.
We ourselves go through many different identities in the course of our lives—from child, to teenager, to adult. Sometimes we’re a spouse and sometimes a parent and grandparent. We are friend, student, teacher, employee, and sometimes employer. We may also have several different careers as we move through life. Which is the real us, all of them or none of them? Is the real us beyond the roles we play in life, always constant, always there as we move through our different roles?
In our own lives we seem to have more understanding and sometimes compassion for those who have gone through the same experiences we have. Those who have lost loved ones have a better understanding of the loss someone else feels when a most important person is suddenly gone from life. Victims of crime have more empathy for other victims because they have been in that position. This is true for the majority of challenging experiences but also for other life experiences. People in the military share a bond and are loyal to their branch of service. Have you ever heard a Marine yell Semper Fi? College graduates are loyal to their colleges and fraternities. Firefighters, policemen, unions, all of these and more have an understanding and loyalty to their own kind.
The loyalty is admirable and to be emulated. However, wouldn’t it be nice if we just felt connected to everyone and didn’t necessarily have to have all the experiences or belong to the same club to have understanding and empathy for our fellow human beings? What if we could go beyond the roles we play in life and get to our true spirit?
What if we didn’t have to live as a different race to see our commonalities? What if, instead of any kind of intolerance for skin of a different color, we saw the richness of different traditions? What if we saw that the variety of food, clothing, music, speech, and culture makes us a richer and more interesting species? What if we didn’t insist that everyone join the religion we approve of or have viewpoints that we approve of? What if we understood that most everybody wants the same things that we do, to be safe, to be loved, and to be valued? People are much more alike than they are different, and the similarities are what bring us closer to each other. It’s hard to point a gun at someone when you see him as yourself.
My favorite prayer, which follows, is one that Krishna Das, a much-loved singer and chant leader, says at the end of his programs. “If we know anything about a path at all, it’s only because of the Great ones that have gone before us. Out of their love and kindness, they have left some footprints for us to follow. So, in the same way that they wish for us, we wish that all beings everywhere, including ourselves, be safe, be happy, have good health, and enough to eat. And may we all live at ease of heart with whatever comes to us in life.”