Sitting in Someone Else's Chair
Empathizing with one another
by Paul Hess (revised, originally published in 2009)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To help students to understand the importance of empathy when dealing with others.
Preparation and materials
This assembly is based on a simple visual illustration that conveys the importance of seeing life from the perspective of others. This illustration can be adapted to the circumstances of your particular school.
You will need a student volunteer – you may wish to ‘prime’ the volunteer beforehand.
You will also need a Bible.
Standing up here in front of you all this morning is not easy. I don’t mind telling you that I am in fact very nervous. I would far rather be sitting where you are than standing here. In fact, I think that is exactly what I am going to do. John (name of student volunteer), would you mind coming up here and standing in my place, while I go and sit in your seat? (John looks suitably shocked.)
Move to sit down in John’s seat and then stand up again after a few seconds.
I have to say, I am feeling much more comfortable in John’s place, sitting next to all the students, than I feel standing up there on my own. I tell you what, John, I’ll stay sitting in your seat and you carry on with the assembly. (John looks even more shocked.)
Stand up again after a few seconds and allow John to go back to his place.
Thank you, John. I am sure that John would agree that standing up here is rather intimidating – and is certainly a very different experience from sitting over there with his friends.
It would be true to say that all of us here today are having a slightly different experience. I have the somewhat frightening experience of standing up here, which most of you have not experienced. Then again, it is difficult for me as an adult to fully understand what it’s like to be in your seats, to be a teenager compelled to listen to a teacher waffling on early in the morning!
Some of you experience the assembly from seats at the front. The people at the back over there have another perspective and are probably hoping that they can doze off quietly without anyone noticing. Some teachers are sitting in seats of authority, keeping an eye out for any potential problems! All these things influence our perspective on this gathering. (You can adapt this section according to the people present, as long as the basic point is made: your seat determines your perception.)
If it is true to say that where we are sitting this morning dictates how we experience this assembly, it is also true to say that where we are sitting in life – our race, class, education, family background and religion – will influence how we see the world. Inevitably, each one of us views the world through the prism of our own experience.
The problem is – as we are all too aware, as we look at the divided world in which we live – that in seeing the world our way, we fail to fully appreciate the experience and perspective of others. Our world is blighted by the inability of individuals and groups to see beyond their own view of the world.
In order to heal the divisions in our world, our community or our school, we have to develop the ability to sit in someone else’s seat, to see the world as others see it. In her famous book about racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote, 'you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.'
Of course, that is not an easy thing to do. From the time we are born, we all seem to be naturally egocentric. A baby thinks that it is the centre of the universe and that others exist to meet its needs – and sometimes, even as adults, we find it difficult to move beyond that way of seeing the world! Yet if we could have the courage and imagination to see the world as others see it – what a difference we could make.
Nelson Mandela was such a man, which is why he is revered as one of the great moral giants of our time. In spite of the suffering and oppression of black people in apartheid South Africa, in spite of spending 27 years in prison for standing up against racism, Mandela came out of jail ready to forgive, ready to understand the fears and hopes of white South Africans.
If each one of us could seek to put ourselves in the place of the victim of bullying or racism, or of the homeless or hungry person, or of the person who is suffering, this world – and our school – would be more compassionate, caring places.
In fact, if we could all put ourselves in the place of the person who is being bullied, there would be no bullying in school at all – because we would all know how awful it is when it happens to us.
It is compassion that characterizes Jesus’ dealings with other people. When he came across the outcasts of his day, he offered them love instead of judgment. One of the greatest qualities we see in the life of Jesus is his compassion: his ability to see the world from the perspective of those who were very different from him.
Time for reflection
In one of his most famous parables, Jesus speaks of a Samaritan man who can understand the suffering of a Jewish man, despite the fact that Jews and Samaritans were supposed to be deadly enemies.
Read Luke 10.25–37.
Let us hope that we – like the Good Samaritan – can overcome our selfishness and enter into the suffering of others. May we always remember the importance of wearing someone else’s shoes or of sitting in their seat.
Please help us to overcome our selfishness and to enter into the suffering of others.
Please give us a heart of compassion.
‘Kum ba yah’ (Come and Praise, 68)