Oneself As Another

by Viktoria Vidali on September 14, 2009

in General,Weekly Post

Happiness held is the seed; happiness shared is the flower.

In a society where the individual is put on a pedestal and where selfishness is excused in the name of independence, Psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s advice about the connection between personal sanity and giving to others may be perplexing.

Once, when someone asked him what to do if a person feels he is about to have a nervous breakdown, Dr. Menninger replied:

Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and do something for them.

But when I’m feeling bad, how will my doing something for someone else help me … what’s the connection?

Considered the pre-eminent philosopher of the last century, Paul Ricoeur writes about this at length in his book, Oneself as Another. When we see that others are human like us, we can empathize with their suffering (rather than judge them harshly) and share in their happiness (rather than be envious).

Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow. ~ Swedish proverb

By walking in the shoes of another and taking another’s perspective, our incredible mind is able to know what it must be like to be that person, in that predicament, at that time. In everyday conversation, we often hear people say, I know exactly how you feel!

This understanding reflects back upon us personally and we become aware that we are like the other – not the same – but like another. When this happens, perhaps a little of our self-importance and self-centeredness washes away. We are then able to recognize that humility and giving are essential to loving. And as Menninger wrote:

Love cures people – both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.

So we’ve come full circle.


Karl Menninger, founder of the Kansas Menninger Clinic, is considered the Dean of American psychiatry. His book, The Human Mind, is a classic in its field.

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{ 1 comment }

M.L. Heller October 29, 2009 at 10:33 am

The acquisition of empathy is a developmental achievement, the result of having received empathy from parents early in life. It is a projective process whereby we locate part of ourselves within another to experience that individual’s subjectivity and respond accordingly. Alas, envy and sadness are also part of the full spectrum of human feelings and responses. Ideally, we use them in the service of growth.

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