Intellectual history and the search for Truth in the Western World has long-vacillated between two extreme methodologies.  One is “rationalism,” the idea that truth can be reasoned out by thinking, such as figuring out that if A = B and B = C, then A = C.  The other is by “empiricism,” or that the truth must be observed or experienced directly.  This is the approach that says you can only know a fire is hot if you burn your hand in it.  The two strategies have existed in a tense relationship since antiquity, and even unto this very day, you’ll find proponents of one trying to devalue the contributions of the other.  Americans, in particular, are very empirically-oriented, very experiential.  In the counseling world, it isn’t at all uncommon for our clients to accuse us of not knowing what we’re talking about, because we haven’t personally “been there.”

In fact, a fully-functioning intelligence will try to utilize both methods to figure out what life is all about.  I do personally believe one should interact with the world a bit and use their observations to make rational conclusions.  However, there are some pools of experience that are so big, we simply don’t have enough days in a lifetime to be one with them all first hand.  This is where reason takes over.  We can take experiences we learn from others, and make our own conclusions about them.

An example.  I was recently having a discussion with some peers about the struggles of child rearing.  Now, let it be said, I don’t have children, don’t want children and do not work with them as clients.  But I have fifteen years of professional experience with relationships and communication issues that are pretty universal to all human interactions regardless of age.  Although I was the only counselor in the group, I was surprised at how quickly my contributions were summarily dismissed as irrelevant to the discussion.  Why?  The general response was “if you don’t have kids, you don’t know anything about them.”  In other words, only direct parental experience makes one competent to say anything on the matter, and that’s that.

I’ve always suspected this reaction is more a pat way to have the last word in an argument, but I consider it ultimately impractical.  Harried parents can sometimes use an outsider’s perspective, even if said perspective doesn’t include all the ins and outs of parenting.  We can also find the flaw in this empiricist argument if we apply it to something more extreme than child rearing.  Would you, for example, dismiss a surgeon’s recommendation for heart surgery, unless said surgeon had undergone the surgery herself?  Would you insist on only using maps for trips you’d already taken and charted on your own?  In the most extreme form, would you only listen to a person’s warning that throwing yourself off a tall cliff would kill you, provided they themselves had the prior experience of having thrown themselves off a cliff and died first?  Really, it seems rather silly when applied to these other, less emotional experiences, doesn’t it?

Of course, I would never presuppose to understand parenting from the inside, without my own experiences of it.  Those with experience have more credibility, to be sure.    Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean those speaking from the observations of people who have experienced it, or from principles of all relationships, are automatically wrong either.  We still have something valuable to add, provided it is woven into direct experience and then applied to the problems parents–or other direct experiencers–have everyday.

The lesson is this:  everyone has a perspective on life from their own frame of reference.  We’re all human, and that means all experiences touch upon each other to some degree.  Wisdom means not being too quick to dismiss someone’s frame without first considering how it might enrich and apply to one’s own.