“I am logging in right now under your account, and miss, I am not having a problem.”
To my credit, I did not throw the phone, even though I had been holding it to my ear for over a half hour. On the other end, an IT colleague at work tried to tell me that my computer program should be working perfectly. And yet, as I watched, even as he spoke, it wasn’t.
I tried to keep the exasperation from my voice. “I’m sitting right here,” I said evenly, “working on this, and still having trouble.” I went step-by-step through the process I was using. “And…now it doesn’t work.”
He was bewildered. “It works perfectly on my end,” he kept saying.
Eventually he was able to discover, by asking someone else to look at the situation, that one of my access permissions for the program had not been turned on. He turned it on and—magically—everything worked properly as it should have. “I’m glad we figured that out!” he said cheerfully.
I was, too, but we could have figured it out a lot faster it not for the “My Lived Experience” fallacy.
The “My Lived Experience” fallacy, as I’ve named it, goes like this: “Well I haven’t experienced what you say you’re experiencing, so a) you must be wrong, b) you must be lying, or c) something is wrong with you.”
Once you know what the MLE fallacy is, you encounter it everywhere. “Oh, everyone at that store is so nice,” your neighbor scolds you when you tell her about how the grocery bagger smashed your bread and forgot to put the bath bombs in your bag. Her tone implies you’re exaggerating. “I’ve never had an experience like that ever!”
I encountered it at work recently when a white colleague of mine sighed, “I just don’t understand all this talk about racism. I haven’t seen evidence of it anywhere!”
Or you experience it in the uncomfortable silence at Bible study that follows an honest confession by a struggling believer: “To tell the truth, I don’t feel God’s comfort during this painful period.” Glances are exchanged between the other members that quietly say: This sounds almost blasphemous. I’ve never had this problem.
Sometimes, of course, the MLE fallacy can have far-reaching and catastrophic fallout. A young girl reports that her pastor has behaved inappropriately; a congregation shrugs it off because none of them have ever witnessed him behave in such a way. A man leaves a church because, every time he expressed a faith question or an uncertainty, accusatory glances and headshakes followed. The believers around him had never experienced doubt or uncertainty, so they couldn’t envision what life must be like for anyone who did.
At its core, the MLE fallacy centers on a lack of empathetic understanding and imagination—the inability of a person to conceive of something that is beyond their lived experience. It assumes that life will be for everyone else like it has been for us; that everyone will respond, think, and act in the way we would in any particular given situation; that what we do is what everyone will do always and in all circumstances.
But we aren’t all the same. And although we share a Christian faith, believers are varied in how they have lived, what they have experienced, and what their perspectives and understandings are. My IT coworker wasn’t experiencing a tech problem, but I sure was – and it was throwing an entire day of work off the rails. My other colleague had seen no evidence of racism, but another colleague of mine was once called a racial slur. Others might feel secure in times of pain and trial, but some believers desperately need help and reassurance.
When we make assumptions based on our own lived experiences, we miss things. We miss how people might be hurting, and why. We miss needs and questions, without ever hearing them. Most importantly of all, we miss ways to help and serve in love.
So we must keep our eyes and our hearts open. When we hear something that diverges from our experience of the world, let’s start by listening rather than by thinking, “Well I’ve never–” Begin with acknowledgement and care. Begin with understanding that we might experience some things differently. Instead of listening to others with the attitude of “well you should–” or “well I would–” try to start instead with a simple, open-hearted question:
Hearing what you’ve said, what can I do help you and love you?