Changing Places With the Stranger, Pauper and Widow

Role affects personality, viewpoint and behavior. In light of this, a proposal: Allow the strong to taste something of the lives of the weak.

Hila Peleg

“The tree is tall, the tree is green ... What does the bird care if the tree is green?” Thus the playwright Hanoch Levin depicted the world’s indifference. No living creature devotes thought to the depth of the sea, and no inanimate object cares about the fate of a bird. In the last verse, man sings about the world (“A man sings songs because the tree is green”), but the reader is left with the question of whether any of it matters at all. 

Is it possible to feel something real regarding someone who is not me? Can a human being care about a tree, a sea or a bird? Moreover, can one person feel the unique condition of another? This question exists as a critical philosophical issue, as a fundamental dilemma in therapeutic interplay and as a significant challenge in social relations.

In “The Prince and the Pauper,” Mark Twain conducted a thought experiment related to this question. One day, by a strange coincidence, the poor lad Tom Canty meets Prince Edward, who is his age and resembles him. The two decide to switch identities: Edward becomes the beggar, Tom enters the shoes of the crown prince. At the height of the plot, Edward is thrown into jail, discovers the cruelty of his own laws and swears to amend them. But, even earlier, at the moment when they switch clothes the prince says, “And, now that I am clothed as thou wert clothed, it seemeth I should be able the more nearly to feel as thou didst.”

Role affects personality, viewpoint and behavior. In the same way that clothes make the man, so too do class, profession and the angle from which one views the world. The well-known psychologist Walter Mischel maintains that personality is never completely fixed and can change depending on the circumstances. When the circumstances bolster power – by virtue of race, gender, religion, capital or status – sensitivity is reduced toward the place of the weak or those without rights. Pharaoh will never be able to understand his slaves.

What on earth could he have in common with them?

In light of this, I propose to allow the strong to taste something of the lives of the weak. To create a momentary role switch between landowner and worker. To suggest to the finance minister that he live for a month on minimum wage; that the director general commute to work via public transportation once a week; that the police officer and warder spend a day behind bars.

When I was a student in the United States, I met a young doctor, a resident endocrinologist, who tried out on herself a series of injections like those taken by diabetics on herself. She didn’t have diabetes – she was perfectly healthy. She simply wanted to put herself in the place of her future patients before prescribing the painful procedure to them.

Hanoch Levin was right. It really is impossible to know how it feels to be a bird or the sea. The basic state of affairs with regard to what is not me is indifference. Still, this situation alters somewhat when we are positioned at the point where the other is. In the Hindu tradition, there is a spiritual ideal according to which, after raising a family and ensuring its well-being, the householder leaves his fortune behind and sets out on a journey as an indigent nomad. By this route, the prince grasps what it means to be a pauper, and that is good for the poor. Along the way he also gains the freedom that was not open to him when he was all-powerful – and that is very good for the prince, too.

Dr. Gabriel Bukobza is a psychologist. He teaches at the Peres Academic Center and at Tel Aviv University.