In her 1895 poem “Judge Softly” Mary Lathrap wrote, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”
From her poem, the idiom “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” became a phrase we often use to emphasize the practice of empathy. It does not take a long reflection to come to the conclusion that empathy is sorely lacking in today’s society. Lathrap’s words are still spoken, but there is an alarming deficit in the practice of their truths. When tragedy befalls our neighbors and friends we can often muster up an emotional response of sympathy. The sympathetic response might make me feel sorry for another’s misfortune while empathy requires a deeper emotional investment. We begin to try and understand the feelings of another as if they were our own.
My childhood and educational experiences were shaped in a diverse community in southwest Florida. For many years I had convinced myself the diverse reflection of my friendships, the schools I attended and the people I played sports with made my community immune to racism and cultural bias. These diverse friendships were also the justification I gave myself to suggest I was free of any racial bias or prejudices.
Those beliefs came crumbling down a few years ago after a lengthy conversation with a childhood friend who, respecting his anonymity, I will call Jason. Like old friends, we discussed various childhood memories and the close football games we almost won and the times we had driven back and forth to night school so we could both graduate on time. During the course of the conversation, the issue of race came up and I asked Jason what his perspective was. Jason soon reminded me of some of the experiences we shared over the years and some of the reasons why he never felt comfortable spending the night at my house.
It was then I realized that though Jason and I shared the same narrative, our experiences were quite different. In short order, he began to explain the reasons why he did not fish in the same neighborhood ponds that I fished in because he was fearful, why he never stayed in my neighborhood too late, and that his parents had conversations with him that mine never felt obligated to have with me. Though Jason and I grew up in the same town, participating in many of the same activities, his experiences were much different than my own.
In a similar fashion, the experiences of the nearly 17 percent of our population who live below the poverty line are vastly different than the nearly remaining 83 percent. They speak a different language, their insecurities are not shared, and the tangible fears they have for their families often go unheard.
That’s the thing about empathy that is so difficult in the current moment we find ourselves in. As community structures began to crumble, and partisan lines dug deeper, we forgot what it was like to listen to one another’s stories. There is reconciliation and healing that needs to occur on multiple levels. That process can not begin until we are prepared to relearn the practice of walking in one another’s shoes. We need to listen to one another’s experiences and seek to understand one another’s perspective.
In our current climate, we have failed to learn how to disagree with civility. Instead, we tend to align ourselves with our given tribes and this allegiance becomes more important than listening and seeking to understand other perspectives. The miles we walk toward a better future for our children, largely depends on which shoes we chose to wear. It’s past time to try another pair.