I nearly floated as I walked home from dinner on the small Pacific island of Miyake a few weeks ago.

The location was special: an island of stunning black beaches, gentle temperatures, and ragged cliffs, towered over by one of earth’s liveliest volcanoes. The food had been superb: thinly sliced meats grilled at the table and dipped in scrumptious sauces, supplemented by an array of pickled dishes, salads, and sparkling beverages.

But it was the conversation that had made the evening exceptional. For three hours, the four of us, all teachers, paused only to fill our mouths. We talked about Japanese politics, about the island economy, about Afghanistan, about sumo wrestling, about families and travel. We laughed; we sighed; we agreed; we disagreed; we heard each other–and felt heard–with both heart and head.

I experienced that night what we mean when we speak of the oneness of the human spirit. Our religions varied. We were single and married, old and young, Japanese and American. None of us was wholly comfortable with the others’ language. Yet the mutuality was magical. I understood what Bob Thompson means when he says that “the idea of a separate self is a construction of the mind.”

My euphoria, however, was punctured soon by a sobering note. If the dinnertime oneness was satisfying, the walk home got me to thinking about the price that mutuality exacts, about the fact that when I start empathizing, I start seeing things from my companions’ perspective. And when I do that, I have to take new, even uncomfortable, ideas seriously.

The topic that stirred the unease around the table was Okinawa. Obama was coming to Japan that week, and the hot issue was the presence of dozens of American bases–and 20,000 GIs–on Okinawa. Japan’s new government had begun discussing possible policy changes regarding the location of one of those bases, and U.S. diplomats had countered with a threatening line, warning that change might threaten the entire U.S.-Japan alliance.

The thing that became clear in the evening’s conversation was that policy specifics were less important than tone, in particular the impression American officials gave that they were not interested in Japanese nuances or sensibilities. The American bases, I was reminded, are on Japanese soil. Japan bears a significant share of their expense. American GIs are perceived to get special treatment when they commit crimes on Okinawan soil. And yet, Americans lecture the Japanese about what must be done–in the authoritarian tone of stern parents.

As I talked with my Japanese hosts, I saw–no, I felt–how humiliating it can be to deal with bullying partners. Even when those partners consider themselves friends.

And as I thought back over the conversation, I realized, quite painfully, that empathy is not always the easiest way. Feeling loved and accepted had prompted me to love back. When I loved back, I was drawn into my companions’ perspective. And when I entered their space, my easy certitudes began to fall away.

What was more (and what was hardest!), that moment of empathy sent my mind spinning off in broader directions. If empathy impelled me to take my companions’ views seriously on this matter, what if I did the same with even hotter, bigger issues? What if everyone took this idea of oneness seriously?

Is it possible that some Palestinians’ hatred of Jewish Israel stems from an inability to get beyond their own (justifiable) sense of victimhood to an understanding of the Israelis’ own sense of threat? Or that many Jews hate Palestinans primarily because their preoccupation with personal vulnerability prevents them from looking at the world as Palestinians experience it?

And is that the way it is everywhere? Americans, smug in our own wealth and power, have no interest in seeing through the eyes of those affected by our actions. Moslem extremists, feeling ignored and marginalized, ask how to bring the infidel down but not how the infidel feels as a fellow human being. Rich nations, focusing on profit lines, shut their ears to the worries of poor countries who will bear the brunt of global warming.

Listening to others will not make solutions easier. It may make them harder, because it will force us to take competing claims seriously. Feeling a sister’s hurt will not necessarily make me agree with her, but it will refuse to let me ignore her position. And that will make my own intellectual struggles more complex, and thus more difficult.

But empathizing will change our interactions. It will drive us to discover ways of living together, to choose love and respect over hatred and alienation. And that will make the complications worth the struggle. It is, after all, the only way to justice.