01/21/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Comfortably Uncomfortable

"I'm so sorry."

Let me start with these three words. We've all been in this situation. Someone suffers a tragic loss, hardship, difficulty. In this moment my personal perception of reality reaches out to someone else, producing vestigial flints of sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy is innate, and it gets pulled out of me easily. It's a recognizable and relatable sadness. At parties, I easily relate to a loss of a loved one, or subtleties of a story about prejudice, because I've felt these incidences, I've experienced them. Their shadows have often left me perplexed, and angry.

How does one appropriately respond to sympathy and empathy? Sometimes I think I haven't lived long enough to assert an opinion. Other times I wonder if not saying anything is a cop-out because the easiest option is to be blissfully ignorant.

In 2014, I challenge myself, and anyone else in my twenty-something age range, to become uncomfortable when trying to relate to a situation.

There are many things I haven't experienced firsthand, like abject poverty, civil war, and displacement. I can sympathize, I can read endless fiction, but empathizing is wholly different.

The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and passing of former South African President Nelson Mandela triggered a personal recall on my own process of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Mandela himself felt that empathy could change the world. In his 2008 6th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture Series in Soweto, South Africa, Mandela acutely addressed the importance of human empathy and unity from his own vantage point:

As the years progress one increasingly realizes the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a ninety-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, as a concern for the other, at the center of the values by which you live. There is still too much discord, hatred, division, conflict and violence in our world here at the beginning of the 21st century. A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.

How do I share a feeling for a person or share a history that is outside of my experience? How do I show empathy? I took these questions to my best friend, Peter, a First Lieutenant in the U.S Army. For the past year, I'd been holding my breath, as Peter deployed to Paktia Province, Afghanistan, with his Rifle Company. I did my best to stay informed and made sure to send Peter care packages and supportive emails. I wrote to him from my West Village apartment in New York City, living in the comfort and security men and women like Peter afford me. Through his emails, I received a precious window into Afghan culture, dramatically different from Western American culture. Peter's mother is an Iranian Shia Muslim, which by the way gives him a unique cultural acuity.

He observed a deeply misogynistic Afghan Pashtun culture that often treated women as property. In addition, he worked side-by-side with some soldiers who practiced bacha bazi or the practice of sexual companionship between older men and adolescent boys.

I interacted with, ate with, discussed with and fought alongside men who considered woman as fertility objects and boys as sexual objects. So how did I respond to cultural beliefs so vastly different from my own?

I learned that empathy does not necessarily mean condoning another group's beliefs, ideas or practices, but understanding that humans are all similar at the base level. These Afghan soldiers, policemen and security forces that I dealt and interacted with were equally human as me. We faced many of the same moral dilemmas and everyday problems. They cared for and provided for their families, they hung out with their friends, they fell in love. At the same time, I could never condone some of their beliefs or practices. Sex with an underage boy and the mistreatment of women are abhorrent, unacceptable practices. While I never can accept these practices, I did understand that these relative "norms" were passed onto these Afghans by cultural and societal forces outside my scope of understanding.

Peter's fundamental concern for others, to borrow from Mandela, allows him to act in solidarity for peace. I asked Peter, how does the average young American accomplish this? We are, after all, Generation Y. We grew up with rapid technological growth. We Facebook, Instagram, tweet, and retweet with alarming speed, but have we learned the art of human empathy? There's no App for that kind of interaction, yet. So how does the average young American learn empathy?

Here is Peter's reply:

He takes himself out of his comfort zone. He visits those who are less fortunate in his own country and he travels outside of his own American region. He visits foreign countries. He studies history and culture. Right now, there is a serious lacking of understanding and acknowledgment of other traditions within our culture. We are failing at studying history, both of our own society and of those societies outside our normal scope of understanding. Without an open mind, experience of other cultures, and stepping outside our comfort zone, empathy cannot grow.

I imagine Peter's trademark grin, signing the email. It gives me comfort to hear from him, friends from college but miles away now, in different parts of the world.

I put my phone down and go outside to my life in Vietnam, in an industrial province two hours north of Hanoi. My Vietnamese friend, Trang, will be cooking dinner for us later that evening. Leaving the University, I pass the open-air market where vendors hawk their daily wares. In one stall I notice a young lady selling dog meat on the street. The dog's head lies on a platter, staring at me. Not all of my students eat dog meat, but for some, it is a delicacy.

I get to Trang's room for our evening meal. She has made a feast of fish, vegetables and fetal bird eggs. When I crack the egg, I can see formulated parts of the baby bird still intact. Trang bites into the egg, washing it down with hot rice. I touch my cell phone but to my amusement, there is no one to call or text. This is Trang's culture, and I am just a guest at this moment. I am feeling comfortably uncomfortable.