Can You Walk a Mile in Another Person’s Shoes?

Until four years ago, I never watched the news on a regular basis. I never felt the need to follow politics closely or share my political beliefs. My reasons are a story for another day.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, maybe it’s because I’m growing older, or maybe it’s because of something buried deeply in my unconscious, but I’ve found myself fascinated by all the drama playing out on the world stage during the past four years.

People are ridiculously simple and complex … all at at the same time. They’re transparent and deceitful, generous and greedy, considerate and selfish. They’re also damned scary.

Normally, I’m more of a participant than an observer. But during the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve had no choice but to limit my activities to watching and listening to other people rather than dancing around on my own. Here’s what I’ve come up with during the past three months:

The world needs more compassion and empathy. For those of you without a dictionary:

  • Compassion is being concerned about how other people suffer and experience difficult times.
  • Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

I’ll use myself as an example because, like most people, I’m my favorite person and my thoughts and feelings focus primarily on myself. I am:

  • A woman
    • Short
    • The firstborn of 4 siblings
    • Brown-haired
    • A mother

Because of inherent traits I have no control over, I do not know what it feels like to be male, 6’ 7” tall, an only child, blonde, or childless. I will never know what it feels like to have a penis instead of a vagina, be able to reach the boxes on the top shelf in the kitchen without a stool, have all my parents’ attention every day, be the butt of stupid blonde jokes, or to not be blessed with the joys and pains of childbirth.

I will never know what these things feel like. I am not responsible for this deficiency in knowledge. It is a fact of nature. My traits are immutable. I have no control over them. However, I can be concerned for men and how they suffer. I can imagine what it must feel like to be a 6-foot-tall 13-year-old girl who towers over her classmates.

You can draw up a similar list of things that describe you, traits and characteristics you were born with or experiences that can never be reversed.

My list will be different from yours. But my list is no more or less important than yours is. My traits and feelings will be different from yours. And my traits and feelings are no more or less important than yours are, either. They’re just different.

This world contains billions of people, each of whom is different from everyone else. Do those differences prevent us from sharing traits and feelings? No! Many other people in the world are also short women who are mothers, women who have younger siblings and have brown hair. Regardless of whether you or anyone else shares these traits with me, every single one of us has been the victim of prejudice, bias, scorn, and mistreatment.

Nasty stuff happens. To everyone.

I believe we need to focus on the similarities rather than the differences. And when we can’t focus on a difference–when it’s too large, too scary, or too nasty to be surmounted–we need to practice compassion and empathy.

This doesn’t mean we have to accept certain behavior, or forgive it, or forego the pursuit of justice. It means we need to be concerned for other people. No, we don’t have to embrace them and take them into our homes. But it does mean we should listen to them and respect their basic, human rights.

None of us wants to be controlled. Not by our government or other people. None of us should be controlled–by anyone.

Living by rules society has agreed to adopt is not being controlled. Being forced to live by rules a small segment of society insists on adopting is being controlled.

Why do some of us believe we have the right to control others, even when the majority of society does not agree with us? Because we don’t have compassion for others. We’re so focused on our own perspectives and pain we’re unable to step into the shoes of other people and imagine what it must be like to be them.

I think it’s time for us to start imagining more.

Who is it all about … you or me?

Let’s face it, if we’re the kind of person who spends any time thinking, most of that time is spent focused on our own feelings, perspectives, wants, fears, memories, dreams, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s human nature. In reality, putting other people first is counterintuitive. It violates the survival instinct, which views everything negative as a threat until we can investigate it and establish that our lives and welfare aren’t endangered.

But our parents, teachers, members of the clergy, and society constantly hammer into us that we have to put other people first. We need to consider the feelings of others before we think and act.  But what happens when we do all those things and wind up hurting ourselves?

I know a person who is struggling right now. In fact, she’s been in a tough place for some time. And when I say struggling, that’s exactly what I mean. She has unintentionally alienated most of her family, suffers from a medical condition, and exerts every ounce of strength going to work each day and doing what she needs to do to stay healthy and safe. She has a temporary job and a temporary place to live. And her life is TONS better now than it was a year ago.

Periodically, she visits to seek my advice and perspective about some of the challenges she faces. I hesitate to speak up, because she sees a therapist and I’m not a professionally trained medical professional qualified to give advice. However, I am a human being who understands her situation and family and I have an opinion. On the other hand, I refuse to tell her what to do because … well … who the heck am I? It’s not like I’ve always made the best life decisions myself…

But how can I just sit there and say nothing, or refuse to share my opinion, when she really, really wants it? How do I not grumble about the fact that she always visits spur of the moment–and when I have other things I really need to do (especially with only 3 days remaining ’til Christmas …)? How do I not remember the migraines that always strike the day after she visits because I exert such rigid control over myself to be sure I’m as mindful as possible when speaking, instead of being the spontaneous blurter I really am?

In short, who should I put first?

I’m sure you understand the dilemma–and sometimes face it yourself. How do YOU handle this type of situation?

I’m the kind of person who finds it nearly impossible to say no. Especially to someone who’s hurting. Seriously, how can we measure pain? Let’s say you go to the ER because of some situation, and the nurse asks, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your pain level?” Really? There’s a universal 1 to 10 scale that everyone shares and agrees about?

Close your eyes. Pretend it’s April, where the average temperature is in the mid-50s during the daytime. Then, pretend the sun is shining and you can feel it penetrate your bones. It’s 65 degrees and you don’t hesitate to step outside without a sweater or jacket for the first time in months. You feel wonderful. Hopeful. Warm!

Now, open your eyes, walk over to the thermostat in your house and feel the reality: 65 degrees. You’re probably freezing–with thick socks on your feet and a long-sleeved tee beneath your sweater or hoodie. 65 degrees in December is a whole different story than it is in April, isn’t it?

Life is all about perspective.

I’m sitting here writing this therapeutic blog post the day after my struggling friend visited, the migraine pounding behind my eyes. I realize I don’t have to make a choice. I don’t have to decide if it’s about her or me. Because it’s really about both of us.

She was in pain yesterday, and wanted some comfort. At the time, I wasn’t in pain and was willing and able to reach out to provide the soothing she really and truly needed. Now I’m feeling the discomfort of a headache. But you know what? My migraine isn’t as bad as it was before I began writing. As I wrote, I subconsciously managed to resolve an unrelated issue that’s been plaguing me for some time. I also experienced the reality of something I’ve said hundreds of times in my life: when we share the pain of those we love, we lessen it.

I helped my friend yesterday, and by helping her clear the fog from her thoughts so she could see a few realities, that entire process helped me do the same this morning.

She doesn’t know about it … yet. But I’m going to tell her.

It’s never just about one person. It’s always about us, collectively. Everything each of us does has an effect on someone else, or several someones. If we run from a person who’s in pain, we actually help magnify that pain–for the other person (through inattention) and for ourselves (through guilt). When we open our hearts and minds enough to put someone first in a particular moment, we’re not subjugating our own wants and feelings, we’re simply postponing putting ourselves first, and experiencing a defining moment that has the potential to change our lives.

During this holiday season, give the gift of compassion and watch it make a difference in someone else’s life … and then rebound back into yours.