Getting that reality check

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar  

The ability to observe, absorb, comprehend and empathise with others’ reality and perspectives while not losing touch with our own, is important

I write this as the United States and the rest of the world is coming to terms with the biggest political upset in recent times…or ever, some people say. Almost everybody got it wrong. The mainstream media, the pollsters, the political pundits. By the time you read this, the world would have slid back into the semblance of some sort of equilibrium — in the sense, we would have turned our attention back to ongoing issues that we are concerned with in our immediate lives. We would have burrowed back down into our safe spaces, surrounding ourselves with the things and people we are comfortable with, and building a sense of our world based on what we around us.

There are many lessons we can learn from the results of the American election, and I certainly do not mean to go into a deep political analysis here! But there is one lesson that I think could be relevant to the process of learning—especially learning about life. A lot of the analyses in the days following the US election indicate that the signs were there, but many of the people making predictions just didn’t pay attention. They weren’t looking in the right places, or talking to the right people. So what’s the lesson here? It’s about looking and listening in ways that can put us in touch with different realities.

Most of the time, we are surrounded by people who think like us, with a similar range of life experiences. Occasionally we may come across one or two instances that give us a sense of a different sort of life, but we tend to dismiss it as an aberration, and go back to thinking of our own experience as the norm, as the “way the world is”. When we get too insular and self-absorbed, our parents or our friends may tell us we need to get a “reality check”. What they mean is we need to get outside ourselves and measure our ideas against an “external” reality.

Of course many people will also tell you that there is no one reality; that the world is experienced in different ways by different people. But we also know that we can share, empathise, and appreciate experiences that are not our own. This happens each time we watch a powerful movie or read a good novel, or even when we watch or read a skillfully told news story. But the most powerful empathy generator is direct experience of difference. For this we need to immerse ourselves in those different realities, to expose ourselves to people who are living those different realities, all the while trying to get out of our own skins and into theirs.

But empathy is only one part of the deal. Confronting or encountering other realities also helps us understand first that people think in dramatically different ways and second, we are able to see why they think in these ways. We do not need to agree with them, or even sympathise with them, but understanding is necessary if we are to even begin a conversation that can lead anywhere.

As we go through school and college acquiring knowledge of subjects and their practical applications, maybe we can also seek out these other realities. Often just signing up for volunteering programmes like NSS can give you such opportunities. They are all around us, actually, and all we need to do is to look and listen with greater awareness. The important thing is that the situation should be different from your own everyday life. Acknowledging and accommodating other people’s realities helps you become a better problem solver and a more expansive thinker. If you are a designer, it pushes you to think about how to design a product or a service that helps more people. If you are into policy and planning, you will develop more inclusive plans. If you are into marketing or communication, you will be able to speak to or connect to people more easily.

It’s not an easy task to get a peek into other people’s world views, and it can even be deeply disturbing. But it enriches us and can even help us gain perspectives that can contribute to our work and our study.

The author teaches at University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. Email:

Confronting or encountering other realities also helps us understand first that people think in dramatically different ways and second, we are able to see why they think in these ways

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