Let’s talk about shoes. Other people’s shoes. And empathy.
Actually, let’s start with a story.
Last Wednesday was Canada Day. A friend of mine who lives near a park that puts on a fireworks show every year invited me to come over, crochet, watch the fireworks from her balcony, and then crochet some more (wild, I know).
“Sure!” I said, “I’ll bring the alcohol (swabs)!”
I didn’t actually say that, but I did say I would try and come. For whatever reason, be it medications or temperature or just randomness, I’ve been having really brutal headaches the last few weeks and Canada Day was no exception. For the majority of the day my head hurt too much to move yet I was also too nauseous to sit still. Quite the dilemma. Thankfully, though, by 8 o’clock my meds were working and my TPN was going so I rallied and headed out. And because I have a central line, I really did bring alcohol swabs!
I soon found myself at a roadblock. Literally. Some of the streets were blocked off to keep people from parking where they weren’t supposed to but I had been warned about this. Residents were of course allowed through, and since in past years visitors had been allowed through, too, I rolled down my window, told the police officer that I was going to a friend’s house and gave him the name of her street.
“Sorry,” he said, “we can’t let anyone through without identification and proof of address.”
Bummer, but considering how much effort it takes for me to leave the house I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
“I understand,” I said, “but I’m not looking for free parking. My friend Lisa really does live at [insert address]. I’m hooked up to an IV here (pointing to central line) and I’m honestly just going to sit on her couch and crochet (pointing to giant ball of yarn).”
But alas, no luck. “Sorry. You can’t get through.”
I sighed and then turned around and headed home, my alcohol swabs unopened and my yarn un-crocheted.
At first I was disappointed because I was looking forward to a nice evening with my friend. Then I was annoyed for a few minutes. And then my thought process went something like this…I wonder if he would have let me through if I said I was going to knit instead of crochet…maybe I would have had more luck if I had started crying…note to self: learn to cry on demand…perhaps I just look really suspicious and up to no good…that’s probably it, I probably just look really hard core.
And just in case you’re curious, ladies and gentleman, this is apparently what the suspicious-up-to-no-good version of me looks like:
Now if that’s not hard core I don’t know what is.
In all seriousness, though, I couldn’t really be annoyed because the police officer was just doing his job. And even if he had bent the rules before, I decided to put myself in his shoes and think about why he maybe wouldn’t bend them for me. I was able to imagine up at least a dozen reasons to explain the bee in his bonnet. For one, even though he wasn’t wearing a bonnet maybe he really had just been stung by a bee. Maybe he was recently broken up with by someone who crochets. Maybe he was hangry or dehydrated. Hey, maybe he even has undiagnosed POTS and was feeling really sick standing outside in the heat. Or, perhaps he was just bummed out that he had to work on Canada Day.
Who knows, but by the time I got home I wasn’t annoyed anymore and I actually found myself feeling a little sorry for the police officer! Sure, I wasn’t able to end up hanging out with my friend, but he was potentially a recently dumped guy with a chronic illness who was desperate for food and water and had just been stung by a bee. Sounds like a pretty bad day to me. And even if none of that was true, at least I was no longer annoyed!
If anything, I was grateful to be in a good enough mood that the situation didn’t really phase me. Without a doubt, my reactions vary depending on what else is going on in my life. Had I been over-tired that day, I might have unintentionally burst into tears or let him ruin my night. If my own responses can vary so much day to day then of course the responses of other people can, too.
This Canada-Day-Almost-Adventure is a somewhat silly example, but I really do believe in giving other people the benefit of the doubt. It helps me to let go and move on. It keeps me from wasting energy being upset and turning small conflicts into all-consuming grudges. And it lets me save my energy for battles actually worth fighting. A little bit of time in someone else’s shoes often saves me a lot of time stomping around in my own.
So why not try putting ourselves in each other’s shoes now and again? In a perfect world we would always treat everyone with kindness and respect and never let our emotions or personal problems negatively impact the way we interact with each other. But this isn’t a perfect world. Plus we’re humans, not robots. We have unique experiences, fears, dreams, insecurities, and burdens, all of which shape the soles of our shoes. The only way to understand what someone else’s footprint feels like is to have some empathy and spend a little time wearing their shoes.
I’m going to leave you with a little style tip: you can even justify socks and sandals in the name of empathy. It turns out that making an effort to better understand each other trumps any major fashion faux pas.
Check out those toe socks…I don’t know about you, but empathy is looking pretty fun to me!