Walking in Each Other’s Shoes
Early in my chaplaincy, when I worked on a detox unit where residents shared rooms, I helped a young, white man wrestle with his racism. Having been housed with a black man, he felt a mixture of disgust, anxiety, guilt, and a burgeoning respect. He discovered it is easy to hate someone you don’t know. Up close, hatred is a little harder.
Our stories teach us about who we are. They also reveal who others are, both the stories they tell and the ones we tell about them. If we’re open to hearing another person’s story, we may find we identify with him in ways we hadn’t imagined.
That’s what the young, white man discovered. The young, black man learned something about his roommate, as well. By sitting together in groups, breathing the same air, negotiating for the one bathroom, even talking together into the night, the two men let go of judgments and fears. They learned to see into one another’s heart. You might say they walked a mile in each other’s shoes. But they couldn’t have done this had the white man not humbled himself and the black man trusted him enough to be open.
Seeing Past Judgments
During a recent Recovery Church service, we talked about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” The phrase comes from a poem by Mary T. Lathrap.  Written in 1895, it admonishes us not to scorn those we think are weak, unworthy, pitiable. “Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,” don’t fault him. Don’t “sneer at the man who is down today,” because we might look as miserable or helpless if we faced the same challenges. “Just walk a mile in his moccasins/ Before you abuse, criticize and accuse,” she wrote, words repeated by Joe South in the song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which he wrote for Elvis Presley.
Lathrap’s suggestion has become common wisdom. We use the phrase to remind ourselves not to judge before we understand. The implication is that, once we understand, our judgments will seem groundless.
But can we ever fully understand how another feels, what another has been through? At the Recovery Church service, we affirmed the importance of trying to understand, though we acknowledged how difficult that is. One of our members reminded us that even if we listen to another’s story, we don’t really know how she feels. Often, in fact, when we say we understand, we’re just seeing the projection of our own experience.
Empathy or Pride
Of course, we are stuck inside our own skins and our own heads, so how can we expect anything other than an approximate empathy? Is that so wrong?
Maybe not, but that wasn’t our member’s only concern. What if, underneath our expressed compassion, we are actually trying to make ourselves feel better? It can boost our spirits to have something to give. When we volunteer, donate money, or commiserate with sob stories, we may feel magnanimous. Our friends may praise our goodness. We may believe we’ve earned the right to feel self-important, powerful, and competent. Could it be that, instead of refraining from judgment, we’re secretly thrilled we’re not broken like those people we claim to help? Being nice to someone in desperate straits can make us feel good for reasons that aren’t, after all, so selfless.
To discern how true this is for us, we may need to look deeply into our hearts. Being honest with ourselves, paying attention to our shameful urges and uncharitable thoughts, is the first step toward behaving with acceptance, compassion, and kindness.
On the other hand, we can overthink things. Even if our motivation is mixed, isn’t it better to help than to ignore cries for help? Is it not better to temper our judgments, to listen with as much heart as we can? True, we can harm one another with our ignorance, so we will want to do our best to be honest with ourselves, but shame and chastisement don’t help us improve.
Besides, since we all inhabit separate bodies, we can’t experience the sensations of even those we love. We can guess. We can use our own histories to imagine. But we can’t know.
According to Christian scripture, there is one person who did know. Jesus not only suffered the pain of crucifixion that many criminals of his day endured, but in that act of surrendering his body to the cross, he took on the agony of every soul throughout creation. In the garden of Gethsemane, we see how the knowledge of what was to come filled him with a pain so sharp he could not sleep. The night before he was to die, Jesus knew a fear deeper than anything he had hitherto imagined.
To understand the story of Gethsemane as told in the Bible, we must enter into it in the spirit of one who believes in the divinity of Jesus, who accepts that he was the son of a virgin and the one, true God. For we don’t believe, we must walk in the shoes of those who do. Imagine, then, that you are a god who took on a human form, a form that made it possible for you to experience separation, abandonment, and total isolation. Like the humans around you, you entered the darkness of no-God, an illusion you had never understood before.
A Night in the Garden
In Mark 14, it is told thus:
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand” (Mark 14:32-42 NRSV).
To Enter into Another’s Agony
God asked Jesus to make an enormous sacrifice. He was to suffer not just physical torment, but the terror of total abandonment. While in a human body, he would fall into the sin of the world, into a separation from God such as he had never known. This would be the hell into which Jesus was destined to descend. The emptiness and despair of every human being would pierce his heart. In this way, he would walk in the shoes of everyone and learn to understand each individual’s heart. To save the world, his beloved Abba was asking him to endure this.
We don’t need to believe that Jesus was the son of God, nor need we believe his was an act of salvation, for us to enter into the Christian story and pause for a moment and imagine what Jesus might have felt. What was it like to breathe in the entire depth of misery, the separation from God that is the outgrowth of sin and that breaks the human heart? Can we walk in Jesus’s shoes, feel even a hint of his agony?
I suppose this is as easy to understand as Nirvana is, which is to say, not very. This total immersion in the experience of another is not something we can understand with our minds.
Saying Yes to the Suffering
Yet maybe we can get a hint of what it was like. Sometimes, when I listen to a patient’s story, I feel a rush of emotion, a flash of terror, a stab of sorrow. Maybe my breath will catch, or my heart feel as if it has shattered. I might experience a spasm of disgust or pain in my gut. At times, this is because I am lost in my own story. Most of the time, these are not my feelings. They came to me from outside. So I let them pass through me, and in this way, I can carry on, listen, notice, witness.
Of course, the weight of one person’s pain is nothing when compared to the suffering of the world. Still, I suspect that Jesus would have coped in a similar way, by distinguishing between his own feelings and those of everyone else, and letting go what did not belong to him. Though for a moment, he would allow the weight of all sin to bow his shoulders, that weight would have to pass through him. To survive, he would have to return to the glory of union with the divine. To be a source of salvation for others, however, he must never forget what he learned by becoming one with our hearts.
The Sacred Work of Listening
This is the ultimate walk in another’s shoes. Although we don’t hold onto any emotion forever, whether ours or someone else’s, if we can experience even a bit of the fear, rage, and sadness of another person, we can understand her story, and that understanding will not go away. If in our own lives, we have felt despair, terror, rage, and helplessness, we might go numb when burdened by the suffering of another. We might feel afraid to let another person’s story touch us. This is why judging and condemning others feels so comfortable. It protects us from having to feel empathy.
Yet if we have faced our own pain, if we have learned to tolerate our anxiety and shame, we will be able to tolerate the shoes of another. When our own story has been witnessed and healed, we become better able to witness for others. According to Bible, this is what Jesus did for us on the cross. He witnessed, and by so doing, he healed us. I have seen the healing that comes from such belief. Many of the patients I’ve met who embrace the story and feel the power of Jesus’s hands on their shoulders, experience a serenity that makes them feel whole.
We need not be Jesus to offer true listening, to see, know, and embrace one another. If we can stay calm and open while we witness the truth of a person’s a story, we may be offering the most important and sacred work there is.
To Walk in Another’s Shoes
So how do we do this? How do we walk in the shoes of another without getting caught up in self-importance and egotism? How do we heal another rather than comfort our own egos, as our Recovery Church member feared we would? Is it possible to empathize without projecting our emotions?
Perhaps not. We are not like Jesus, at least as he is portrayed. We are trapped in our own experience. While others talk to us, our minds fill with stories we make up about their words rather than with the stories we are told.
If we are humble, though, we will be able to admit we don’t know everything. We will recognize that we make mistakes and interpret things wrong and don’t have all the answers, if we have any answers at all. We will see that our judgment of the other person is no more than the rumbling of our own uncertainty. Then, we might discover we can hear the stories told by others in a startling and wondrous way.
Letting Humility Help Us Understand
In a 2017 column, I defined humility as “right relationship” with that which we consider sacred and holy. In such a state, we think less about ourselves and more about others. We see ourselves as we are, as complex beings with both gifts and limitations. When we are humble, “we do not pretend to be someone or something we are not.” We have nothing to prove, not even that we know how to listen. When we fail, humility reminds us that failure is okay. It’s part of our condition as embodied creatures. Another time, we will do better.
Humility is very difficult to sustain. We want people to like us, to praise us, to embrace us. So we try to do well, to look good, to work hard. Yet we cannot be all things to all people. Sometimes it is not up to us to hear the story or heal the heart. I don’t like to disappoint people, but sometimes I do.
So I try to stay humble, because then I can remember that it’s not about me, it’s about the other person’s suffering. If I mess up, it’s up to me to apologize, reach out, let go, or walk away knowing that I am not always the one needed or wanted. Humility allows me to admit this.
The Healing Power of Humility
Yet my humility also makes walking in another’s shoes possible in the first place. Unless I am willing to put myself aside, I cannot truly see another.
Mother Teresa is another example of someone who could suffering with compassion and walk in the shoes of another. I suspect this is because she, too, experienced a dark night of the soul, that desperate time when it seems one is completely alone.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Mother Teresa wrote to some of her spiritual directors that she felt doubt, that it seemed God had abandoned her. She experienced “that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”  To deal with her experience of loss, she converted her sense of abandonment into an abandoning of herself into God. This helped her feel less alone. Yet still, she felt as if she suffered on a cross, so she did her best to bear her Gethsemane as Jesus bore his.
About Mother Teresa’s dark night, Carol Zaleski wrote that her experience of alienation “gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness.” She felt the utter separation and abandonment to which every person is born. If she could endure this as Jesus had, she could, in this way, “bear witness to the fidelity for which the world is starving.”  She could help those around her to heal.
To Know the Pain of the World
Because Mother Teresa embraced her own despair, she came to understand the despair of the world in a new way. Humbled by her failure to reach God, she ceased to judge the failure of anyone else. Indeed, her ability to serve without judgment or censure, to accept and enfold, appears to have arisen directly from the intensity of her pain, particularly the pain of her limitations, mistakes, and failures.
To walk in the shoes of another, we need to remember our faults, our weaknesses, our losses, our blindness. By doing this, we might avoid getting our own ego in the way of being present to another. If we embrace our fears of incompetence, might we become more competent? Through our own pain, do we not understand the pain of the world?
This sounds good, but it’s not easy. It hurts to be reminded of our own pain. Unlike Jesus or Mother Teresa, we might not be able to do it. How many of us want to face the dark loneliness of a Jesus on the cross or a Mother Teresa feeling bereft of her god? Though we could develop a sense of purpose from our suffering as Mother Teresa did, that doesn’t necessarily make it worth the pain.
To Be Human and To Fail
Because we so often fail ourselves and one another, the Bible tells a second story alongside that of Jesus’s. We hear of Peter who sleeps. Throughout scripture, the disciple bumbles, stumbles, and makes mistakes. He betrays the one he loves. Not only did he fall asleep when Jesus begged him for comfort, but later, when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied him to save his own skin.
Peter was not the great one who listened and knew and healed. He was the one who needed to be listened to, the sufferer who needed to be seen with love and compassion. Like us, he needed to be healed.
To acknowledge our need for healing takes a different kind of humility. Yet none of us is so miserable that we are incapable of offering sustenance to others. I think of some of the people I’ve met, whether on the street, in prison, or in the hospital, who lived with physical pain, depression, stern voices in their minds, weakness and vulnerability. In spite of their challenges, they reached out to others. Some expressed their gratitude to staff or smiled at loved ones. They offered what nurturing could. At the very least, they tried not to snarl at those around them. Just as Mother Teresa offered a humble love not in spite of her spiritual pain, but because of it, so do we who suffer carry within us the possibility that we, too, can offer grace to the suffering souls around us.
The Story Continues
I can’t speak for anyone else. I just try to offer what I can, given who I am. Though I have received many gifts, I get angry, petty, hopeless. Wouldn’t it be great if we could reach some enlightened place from which we could, from then on, watch over everything with equanimity? But human life doesn’t work that way.
Instead, we too often do as Peter did and fall asleep. But this needn’t be the end of the story. Surely Peter wanted to be there for Jesus. He wanted to be brave and loyal. If he could have admitted to himself how frightened he was, maybe he could have done a little better. What a thing it would have been, to withstand the horror of Jesus’s agony and not flinch.
How much courage does it take to listen? Some days a lot; some days less. At times, we may fool ourselves, get lost in memories and thoughts when we’re supposed to be listening. Or our humility may look like pride dressed up as self-deprecation. False humility can trip us up, as can our own, unfinished story.
To listen to one another, to witness, to honor, to walk a mile in the shoes of one who knows the pain of the world, can bring great healing to us . We can each do our best. When our weakness gets in the way, when we fail one another, we can be humble enough to admit our failure and move on, doing better next time. Failure is only failure if we let it be the end. The story continues, if we but listen.
In faith and fondness,
- Milson, James, “’Judge Softly’ or ‘Walk a Mile in His Moccasin’ – by Mary T. Lathrap,” https://jamesmilson.com/about-the-blog/judge-softly-or-walk-a-mile-in-his-moccasins-by-mary-t-lathrap/, accessed 1/1/20.
- Zaleski, Carol, “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” First Things, 133, May 2003: 24-27, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/05/the-dark-night-of-mother-teresa, accessed 2006.
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