Most would agree that two people truly defined my college experience. I married one of them. The other was the guy I lived with for all four years, my roommate. Both of them have walked with me as I have transformed from an 18 year-old boy into a middle-aged man.
Twenty-first birthdays are a cultural right of passage and my college roommate’s was no different. I did not set out to be a bad friend that day – it just came naturally.
The celebration was a night on the town.
We ordered dangerous sounding adult beverages with names like, “The Green Dinosaur” and “The White Zombie.” After drinks and a pleasant dinner, we returned to our dorm, and I headed to bed. All in all, it seemed like a great birthday celebration for a college student’s coming of age.
As I got ready for class the next morning, I heard moaning coming from the bathroom. My roommate was holding his stomach. He groaned, “Those drinks are killing me.”
I quickly analyzed the situation. We both had the same food and adult beverages. I felt fine and was ready for the day. Therefore, my roommate should feel fine as well.
In a display of reckless insensitivity, I decided to share my logical, but incorrect, conclusion with him as he whimpered. My counsel was essentially – get over it. If I wasn’t hung-over he shouldn’t be either; so, I headed to breakfast to meet my girlfriend (now wife).
As I went about my day, my roommate was taken to the Campus Medical Center.
It turns out that he really did need help.
My roommate lacks the enzyme that allows the body to completely break down alcohol and the half processed alcohol had turned toxic. When I arrived at the clinic, the nurse explained what had happened. Amazed, I mumbled that we had the exact same drinks last night. Nonchalantly she said, “Maybe so, but you are not the exact same people.”
The grand flaw of my response was that I allowed my personal experience to become the standard by which I measured another person. I was not walking in another man’s shoes; I was evaluating him as if he were walking in mine. This turns the Golden Rule on its head. Compassion and empathy cannot exist within this rigid, self-focused framework.
But this is no new trend.
Our culture habitually judges people by the skewed subjective standard of personal experience. This means that we generally show compassion when it makes sense to us, is convenient, or makes us feel better about ourselves.
However, our personal perception does not define reality for other people. Others often perceive circumstances and react to situations differently than the way we would. Many of us find little common ground with the people in our communities because we think their suffering is self-inflicted or looks different than ours.
If we are going to embrace our common call to care for our neighbors, we must offer more than our insensitive recommendation to get over it. Fortunately, we have a God who got into it with us instead of telling us to get over it.
That is good news.
My roommate is now an award-winning high school teacher who is loved by his students. Recently, I was invited to speak at his school and I learned that he regularly tells his students stories about our college years. After reminding him that I also have some stories about his college antics, I took questions from the students. When they asked about his 21st birthday, I told them the lesson I learned that day. Compassion and empathy require us to look beyond ourselves.
How can you be a better friend by seeing things from a different perspective?