Maybe it’s reading too many subpar novels in my youth, maybe it’s recently having Sir Ernest Shackleton described as someone with “Menschenkenntnis,” or maybe it’s last week’s readings on Jesus talking to the woman at the well, but I’ve been reminded anew of how characters said to have this deep knowledge of human nature that allows them to quickly discern the other’s character have always impressed me.  And I used to wish I had that, too, assuming tacitly that it was either an innate gift or an automatic result of experience.

Often, in my youthful confidence, I’d tell myself I probably wasn’t that bad at it.  People would talk about being able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and I’d evaluate myself as pretty ok at that, because after all it didn’t take me a lot of effort to answer the question: “If I was in their situation, what would I do?”

Only later did it dawn on me that the question was incomplete.  Besides “what would I do?” I’d have to answer “how would I feel?” and “what would I say?” and, finally, “would I really be able to come up with all that on the spur of the moment?”  Those took more effort to answer, and the answer came with less certainty (except to the last question, answered with an unequivocal “no.”).

And then, much later again, I realized that the question, although mostly complete, was actually wrong.  It isn’t “If I was in his situation,” but “If I was he, in his situation,” that ought to begin it.  If I could answer that, that would be empathy; that would be Menschenkenntnis.  And answering that set of questions is exceedingly difficult, at least for me.  Empathy is hard; Menschenkenntnis takes deliberate work and practice.

Unless you’re Jesus, I suppose.  It seems clear that omniscience would give him a leg up in the empathy department (and thank God for that).  But it shows a danger in the formerly popular WWJD approach.  Jesus repeatedly makes incisive statements about people who have just met him, whom he should not be able to know that well that quickly.  I can pretty much guarantee that imitating Jesus in this regard will in most cases lead to unmitigated disaster.  If I follow my gut and say: “Friend, you need to work harder on your marriage,” what could be the effects?  My “friend well met” could be single, and take me for a nut or a thoughtless boor: he’d likely give me a puzzled look and walk off.  He could be married (in which case, incidentally, my statement is by definition true), but he’d probably also give me a puzzled look, thinking “Who do you think you are to give me unspecific marriage advice, to imply my marriage is lousy?” or perhaps “You’d better be telling my wife that!”  There’s a tiny chance that I’d get him at precisely a moment of crisis where he breaks into tears and tells me his life story and how his marriage is on the brink, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath for it.  My “friend well met” might well be divorced, in which case he’d likely give me a puzzled look, perhaps ask “which one?” or inform me that I’m just a little late; or he might be widowed, in which case I’d have to forgive him if he punched me in the face for that insensitive comment.

Unfortunately, despite the poor statistical outlook of that approach, confirmation bias comes to the rescue of this questionable take on WWJD.  All the puzzled looks and blank stares, the slow backing away from me, would fade in the background beside that one jackpot moment where a stranger opened up his heart to me because I told him to work on his marriage, and I would cite that occasion as proof that I have considerable Menschenkenntnis.  Empathy, too, for didn’t I listen to that guy’s life story all the way to the end?

Further confirmation bias comes along in the guise of literary characters who have similar moments, who say after ten minutes of conversation just the right thing to soften the heart of stone or take the braggart down a notch.  These same characters often also come up with paradigm-shattering solutions to their problems, solutions that end up working (after a lot of nail-biting suspense) because nobody expected them.  What is rare in reality happens a lot in novels (if only because average reality isn’t quite storybook material), and if we read enough novels, these events begin to feel familiar, as though we might reasonably expect them to happen regularly in our life.

The trouble is, solutions to problems (be they dungeon confinement or cold fusion) require a lot of work and persistence.  Menschenkenntnis and empathy require a lot of work and persistence.  The shortcut stroke of genius is fine for novels and our omniscient God, but I think I’ll ask other questions than just WWJD before I tell a friend well met: “Friend, you need to stop looking at internet porn.”

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