Walking A Mile In Their Shoes
”You never truly know someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. –American Adage, Source Unknown “
We’ve heard the phrase a thousand times. We heard it as children, we use it as parents. Because it’s been around for so long, the power of its message can sometimes be lost.
For children, one of their first thoughts will always be the shoes. Are they cowboy boots, flip-flops or sneakers? Could I make it a whole mile in those shoes? As adults, we’re wizened and understand that it takes time and effort to know another person. Except, we live in a fast-paced world that requires quick decisions and rapid-fire judgment all the time. It is harder and harder to stop, to take a moment and wonder what lies beneath the surface.
There's the homeless person who's always on the side of the road. His sign speaks for his family, he’s begging for his family. Depending on our day, our mood, the latest news flash on the economy, even the weather, we smile or nod, we avoid looking at them, we frown at them or we roll down our window and hand over a dollar or two.
Our reaction might be one of fear. Deep down, do we worry, "Could that happen to me?" Others may feel disdain or disgust wondering, "Why aren’t they working? Surely, they could be doing something more constructive than begging." Still others may fear they are dirty and maybe even germy. How often do we wonder what set them on the road to homelessness?
Every day we pass people on the streets but do we see them? Every day we speak with people but what do we learn about them? Often, we make our instant assessment because that’s all the time we have. Add to that the fact that it is human nature to retain our first impression of people we meet or encounter.
Consider the story of a professional woman at a conference. She’s in her mid-fifties. Her hair is well-styled, her dress and jacket are beautiful. She seems just a little heavy for her height but she certainly stands erect. Her smile is warm and engaging.
During a break, standing in the crowded hallway, she chats with others. She starts a conversation with a young woman whom, she soon learns, holds high career aspirations. The woman shares thoughts and advice as the younger woman tells of her experience and goals. Near the end of the conversation, the thirty-something young woman says, “I am so envious of you and your life. You are so successful. You have a really great life. It’s exactly what I want.” The mid-fifties woman smiles, thanks the younger woman for the compliment and then wishes her success with her dreams.
As the younger woman moves on, the elder woman marvels at the innocence of the words. The younger woman could not know that sudden death had just taken the elder woman’s beloved husband, that a recent spinal fusion meant she was wearing a thick plastic body cast beneath her dress, that financial circumstance threatened her future.
We are practiced at putting on a good front. It makes it easier for those around us. We also expect a game face from others. When that face isn’t there or it seems out of synch with our world, we don’t always take the time to wonder what it’s like to walk in their shoes. We know what the world expects to see in terms of demeanor and we do it.
People can appear so put together, so on top of life. We can’t imagine that anything could intrude on seeming perfection. That's not how it works. Life’s challenges confront us all. Many amongst us courageously carry a burden while also carrying on with life. We cannot know whether the person seated next to us has shoes lined in velvet or nails. We cannot know. Nor do we need to know.
Especially today, in our sometimes topsy-turvy world, leading with compassion and acceptance can change the course of human encounter. It's not necessary for us to know a life story before we offer a warm smile and a kind word or gesture.