Your feet aren’t the same size as mine.

So I’ve been thinking lately about the whole idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.  It all started during a more or less innocent conversation.  I was talking about canning and gardening and how I always seem to overshoot things, and my mom made a comment about how she remembers those days.  I almost immediately wanted to say, “I’m not you!”

I’m glad I bit my tongue, because on further reflection I can see how from her point of view, we are the same.

But then, I’m not.

We’ve traveled some of the same old dirt roads.  I’ve relived many of her experiences.  If life were walking mountain trails it would be safe to say that she and I have seen the same panoramic views.  But we haven’t walked all of the trails the same, and I couldn’t ever walk a mile in her shoes (or she in mine) because our feet just aren’t quite the same size.

This is true of so many people.  We like to take our experiences and all the knowledge we’ve gained from them and just thrust all of that onto others, forgetting that our experiences are a product of who we are, and the knowledge they give us is personal. Are there some experiences that are universal?  Sure.  It’s always good advice, for instance, to tell people to lay down hoes and shovels blade side down or hang them up.  (Step on the blade and get smacked in the face just once, and you’ll realize that this is a universally crappy experience.)  I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from being reminded to always look over your shoulder before putting a car in reverse, or always cover the coals before bed when camping.  Sure, those are mistakes that no one, regardless of their perspective, would want to make.  The potential danger is just too great.  It doesn’t matter whose shoes you are wearing, you want to avoid potential damage.

But then there are the more vague adages, and the more personal experiences. Someone may say, “never get married young, trust me, you aren’t ready.”  Then someone else says, “have your kids in your twenties, you’ll enjoy them more that way.”

Whose advice do you take?

One man says, “leaving the homosexual lifestyle helped me avoid so much pain,” and a woman turns to him and says, “it wasn’t until I accepted my sexuality that I experienced true love and devotion.”

Their shoes couldn’t fit more differently.

And my mom makes a harmless comment to me, full of love and nostalgia and regret, and I have to accept the fact that whatever pain in  life she wants to help me avoid, it’s my pain to feel, and we may find it fits us very differently.  Like that last purple sun dress on the sale rack that we both try on and size each other up in, we may find that even though we are so alarmingly similar, it fits one of us better than the other, and we both know it.

You can’t just walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and understand their life.  You have to take all of the context into account:  who they are, how they feel, how they’ve interpreted their experiences, what they want from the future, what lessons life has given them so far and what they’ve learned from it, and if they are even remotely like you.

You can’t just borrow their shoes.  You have to walk in the essence and understanding of who they are.

You can’t shove your biases into their loafers and then say, “see, I can really rock a mile in these suckers.”

Your feet aren’t even the same size.

The only person capable of walking a mile in their body in their shoes is they themselves, excepting God.  (And we all know the trouble that comes from thinking that we can be God.)

So let’s leave all this business of shoes behind, and change the conversation.  Don’t retort, as I was so sorely tempted to, that nobody knows your life.  Say, “this is my life.  Now show me yours.”

Listen.

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Shared pain, shared experience

Pain is a gift.

I realize saying that may make a few people stare at me oddly.  And people currently in the throes of pain may resent me, but it’s a topic worth addressing.  We need to get past the stage of suffering where we eagle-eye focus in on ourselves.  We need to get to the point where we think of our pain in relation to each other.  Think about what pain really does in our lives- not simply the part where we feel our pain, but the part where we open up to each other, learn to depend on each other, and learn to hold others who are crying.

Without the pain, none of these experiences would be possible.  If Billy couldn’t feel physical pain, and then a friend of his scraped a knee, how do you think that Billy might respond?  I can only imagine the conversation:

Billy:  Why are you crying?

Timmy:  Because I scraped my knee.

Billy:  But it’s not even bleeding.  Why would you cry?

Timmy:  It hurts.

Billy:  Hurts?

Timmy:  (pinches Billy) Hurts.

Billy:  Why did you do that?

And so on, and so on…  Because Billy’s lack of pain bars him from imagining his friends pain, and that lack of imagination bars him from sympathy.  He may intellectually rationalize that his friend is reasonable, and therefore must have a reason for expressing agony, but he cannot truly empathize.

Our pasts are our gifts to our future friends and family.  All of our shared experiences bind us together in a way we could not be bound if it weren’t for mutual suffering and mutual love.  Every blah day and every dreary evening make up part of a bigger global picture, one in which we are part of a universal community.  Our microwaved lunches and lemonades on the porch, or tearful arguments and celebrations are all part of the picture that makes up humanity.

Cherish it.  Cherish the heartache and the bliss.  Cherish the doldrums and the excitement.  Cherish even the pain and agony, as that pain reminds you of your humanity.  And it reminds you of something greater, of the Son of Man come down to earth to walk in our skin, to share in our humanity, and even to suffer.

The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us…