I had an excellent Humanities professor during college.
She created the class around understanding the beliefs of other cultures as well as the history of culturally relevant feelings behind those beliefs. She was always asking students to “be the other.” What does it mean to “be the other?”
Some might say that “being the other” is the same as “walking a mile in someone’s shoes.” While they are similar, they are also very different.
If you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, you are still walking in their shoes. It can be difficult to truly take yourself out of the picture.
Our society tends to only briefly adopt a perspective they believe would fit the person or situation they are trying to commiserate with. While this is a great first step, it must go further. In order to be the other, you can’t think like you, you must be fully them—whether you agree or believe the same or not—and you must do it without condemnation.
“Walking a mile in someone’s shoes” emphasizes the value of empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. Though this thinking is on the right track, we, as people in an often ego-centered society, don’t take it nearly far enough.
Again, to be the other, you must become them.
Instead of “borrowing” someone’s shoes and talking a stroll down their street, being the other calls us not to wear just the shoes, but to “wear” the other person. This ups-the-ante a bit—it requires you to march straight into alien territory and then empathize with whatever you may find there—no matter what that may be.
If fear has one definable quality, it would be the unknown.
No matter what type of fear is encountered, it always shares this common seed.
We fear what we do not know. We fear what we do not understand. We fear what we cannot control. Fear does serve a useful purpose for us—it’s a survival instinct—it gets us thinking about how what we do now may affect what happens to us later.
This is very helpful when confronting situations that demand quick response—like encountering a hungry predator in the wild. Healthy fear helps speed us to action (whether fight or flight) when confronted with a moment that requires it.
Fear can also be a cause of paralysis when movement is what’s needed. Too much fear has the ability to turn us emotionally hard—petrifying the human soul.
Fear is at the heart of every war that has ever happened on this Earth. The human mind is an incredible instrument and should not be underestimated. It is highly capable of creating something from nothing, and only needs society’s’ belief to stand as a shared reality—the stock market, guns, a work of art, a pace maker—everything manmade started out first as an idea in someone’s mind.
A reason that pointedly reminds us how important it is to be aware of what kinds of ideas we are filling our minds and hearts with. What’s inside of us shapes the things we create—and we create the world we live in.
“There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.” ~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Let’s take the statement “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” as literally as possible. Let’s pretend we are waiting for someone we don’t know—someone who is also participating in this exercise—and we will swap shoes with them. We don’t know anything about the other (nor do they), thus we have no idea who or what conditions we might be getting into.
Imagine: A stranger walks up to you who’s a bit run-down looking. His shoes are dirty, unattractive and have a few holes in them. The shoelaces are threadbare, though they work—as do the soles covering the bottoms of their feet, at least most of their feet. Your shoes, while they may not be new, are in good condition. They are clean, have good laces, and have no holes. According to the agreement, you both sit and swap shoes.
Now, you might look down and feel a sense of loss. Meanwhile, the stranger you have exchanged shoes with can’t believe their luck. Together—possibly with you feeling some resentment—you both start walking down the road to your next destinations. It’s a trail of rocky dirt interspersed with bumps, potholes, weeds, and sometimes biting insects—a road where decent shoes make a difference.
As you’re walking, you notice that the other person is moving a little faster than you—a slight skip seems to have entered their step—they are enjoying wearing shoes that fully cover and protect their feet. They are no longer slowed by the quality of their footwear.
At the same time you are noticing this, you are also worrying about your feet. Some loose rocks and dirt have already made their way inside the holes of the shoes you now have on. It slows you down as sharp, tiny pebbles jab into your skin with every step.
You find it difficult to enjoy your surroundings as your mind is too focused on your growing discomfort and avoiding insects. You glance up momentarily to see the other person—now, a ways ahead of you. You think, “I’d probably be even farther than them if I had some decent shoes.”
It begins to rain. Giant balloon drops are pouring down your face, your body, and your shoes. The dirt mashes into mud instantly. The cold is starting to make your muscles strain and your coordination fail. You’re having difficulty maintaining your foot-hold, and every few steps one of your feet slips in what feels like a life or death struggle to keep your balance.
Your mind has now turned its full attention to not falling.
You glance up again to see how the other person is doing. The downpour has made them speed up—their shoes have good traction and give adequate protection against the elements—you think they must be trying to get out of the rain faster. “This is terrible. I wish I still had those shoes!” You mumble to yourself—knowing you have a long, uncomfortable, cold, wet, arduous journey ahead of you.
The other person is now yards ahead of you, but they have stopped and are speaking with a stranger on the side of the road. The rain is making a slight tapping sound on the stranger’s umbrella while they speak with the Other. Their conversation fills the air as steam swirls between them. They are still too far away to be heard clearly over the rain, and the exchange is brief, but they appear to be making an agreement of some kind.
Incredibly, the stranger on the side of the road pulls something from his bag, hands it to the Other, and begins walking away. The next thing you know—an umbrella swiftly pops up over the Other.
“Why would someone give away their umbrella in the rain for nothing?” your brain whines. The stranger is making their oddly merry way back onto a light path leading into the woods. You expect the Other to continue walking on, but instead they stand there gawking at you while you walk towards them.
“What’s their problem?” you wonder. “Are they rubbing it in?” Your thoughts are confused. Finally, irritated and ready to sweep past the other person, you reach them. The Other offers a smile to you. Despite your growing irritation, you manage a polite smile back—though you’re ready to trudge ahead. Seeing your intention to pass, the Other stops you with a gentle hand on your arm.
“Hold on.” They say as they step closer to share the umbrella with you. You let out a small sigh of satisfaction and mutter a few programmed albeit sincere words of gratitude as the umbrella passes overhead. You’re still sopping, muddily wet, but the respite from the rain assaulting your face is divine.
You’re about to start off again, when the Other, again, stops you. They point in the direction you just saw the mysterious stranger leave, and say “we may take refuge in the village down this path.”
“Who was that?” You say, “and why did they just give you their umbrella like that? I’m not sure I’d trust someone who appears to be so foolish.”
The Other replies quietly, “They are a friend. There is a small community down the path where we may rest during the storm. It is the path I choose, but you must choose your own.” With that, the Other pauses and waits for a choice from you. Seeing no better options, you move forward onto the sparse path and into the woods with the Other.
While walking with you they kindly keep the umbrella between the two of you—continuing to share their good fortune with you. You suddenly feel ashamed for feeling resentment that the other person was given an umbrella in the storm. Maybe your mind slips to the past for a moment—to reasons that you would have likely been to shelter already, or had the umbrella yourself, or at least be doing better in the rain had you been able to keep the shoes that belonged to you. These thoughts may take away the feelings of shame—but by turning to blame, you may have just heavily reinforced your feelings of resentment from earlier.
As you walk next to the stranger, you accidentally trip over your heavily caked-with-mud feet. You’re sure you’re about to tumble face first into the nearest sludge puddle. Just as you spot and wince at the place you know you must land, something stops you. The Other has grabbed the back of your clothing and is pulling you back up onto your feet. Breathily, you say, “Thank you!” and they slide their arm through yours—helping you sturdy yourself and giving you a stronger foundation to hold onto. You perhaps feel a bit awkward and helpless, but are grateful to be upright none-the-less.
As the barely visible trail creeps around the corner, a small grouping of tiny shacks appears through the trees. You reach a clearing, and begin to notice a couple of little faces peeking at you from the windows. The villagers must not see many strangers here. The Other walks with you towards a little home in the midst of the others. The door opens, and you see the stranger from the road smiling warmly as they welcome you inside.
Stepping into the one-room abode, you feel immediate thankfulness to be out of the rain. You and the Other take a moment to express your gratitude to the stranger. The home is simple but warm inside—the ground is covered with some intricate rugs made from the reeds and grasses of the area.
There are a couple of cots to one side of the room, and a round table with two chairs on the other side. Without warning, your stomach cries out for the sustenance your nose has just smelt drifting from the pot over the fire. As the mud and rain water begin to pool on the floor beneath the two of you, the stranger tells you there is a change of clothes for you both behind a dressing screen in the far corner of the room.
You start over first as you are nearest and are likely causing the most mess on the floor.
You see a folded change of clothes sitting behind the screen and begin disrobing. The clothes you put on are well-used but well-mended, clean, and most importantly, dry. As the Other trades you places to change clothes, you make your way over to the fire and place your wet clothing on the hearth to dry. You begin warming yourself in front of the fire—the heat feels like it’s slowly melting the chilly stiffness from your body.
You hear the door quickly open and shut from behind you and turn towards the noise. It appears the stranger from the road has gone without a word—but to where? You walk to the table and chairs and take a seat. The Other, now changed into dry clothes as well, sits down with two bowls of soup, tears a chunk of bread in half, and begins eating. They offer you the second bowl and bread half.
“Thank you… Where do you think our host went so quickly?” you ask as you reach for the meal.
“Home.” The Other said.
“Home? Whose home is this?” you ask with a quizzically arched eyebrow.
“This is your house?” you say with quiet disbelief.
“Yes. I know the person that was on the road—he lives in this village.
He was returning to our village when I ran into him on the road. I knew it might take you awhile to walk here—it looked like you were having trouble keeping your footing in the rain, so I asked my friend if he could run ahead to start a fire and put some soup on.
He kindly gave me the extra umbrella he carries when traveling in poor weather—and warmed the soup and house ahead of our arrival. He is a very kind and generous man. Our community may not have a wealth of material things, but we stick together and we all live better.”
You swallow the bite of soup and bread you’re chewing like a frog swallowing a marble.
For a few moments, you simply stare at this man while you eat with him—silently trying to puzzle out what exactly had just happened. You begin taking more notice of this person beside you. His hair is beginning to gray, and the sun has etched some lines on a face that obviously loved to smile.
Here, in this home he so hospitably opened to you, a total stranger, without being asked—without you even thinking of asking. In fact, as you are going through the whole account in your head, you are noticing how your attitude changed immediately following the change of your shoes.
Your attitude changed with your circumstances.
You begin realizing how much your attitude shaded your experience—all brought on by circumstances. So much so, that you thought much more on what those shoes might have meant to you, than what this person may have meant to you. You remember the point at which you knew you would have a long, uncomfortable, cold, wet, arduous journey ahead of you—and the trek did contain those things for a time, but look at where you are now. You’re now inside a warm home, dry in clean clothes with a belly full of soup.
The compassion and understanding this man has shown humbles you.
You think back on some of the passing negative thoughts you had of him, and the generally poor attitude you had about the entire situation. There were passing moments of gratitude, though those feelings were not exactly aimed at the person who sat beside you right now.
When you started this journey you were attached to your shoes—and you let the absence of a thing influence your treatment of the whole situation and people around you. You became so focused on what you were lacking, that you failed to appreciate the opportunities and blessings being given to you along the way.
Circumstances did affect how you experienced your journey, but not nearly as much as you did yourself.
Even the attitude of the kind man who helped you could be considered a circumstance—there was never any guarantee this man might help you. Would it change how you feel about him now if he hadn’t?
Would it change your current perspective and feelings if he had never said a word to you and left you wandering in the rain as any stranger might?
What if he was afraid you might rob him of the “good” shoes after you traded with him?
Or decided to steal his shoes back from you? What if he was taking the stolen shoes to an orphan who had none? Given a different attitude, he may have let his fear of loss control his actions.
The ability and practice of “being the other” helps us realize that as humans we cannot possess true compassion without first recognizing what it is like to be the other person—complete with their possible past experiences, their current circumstances, and how these things may have affected their attitude towards life and other people.
Furthermore, we cannot feel for others without being able to feel for ourselves.
Practicing love and acceptance doesn’t stop with other people—be generous with loving and accepting yourself too. We must treat ourselves as the Other—never the same, and yet inseparable—giving a good measure of understanding and empathy for both.
It might not be an easy exercise at first—it takes trust. We must trust that when someone tells us they hurt, that they do. We must trust that in doing right by others, we do right by ourselves. We need to learn to trust ourselves—no matter what happens, we’ll figure it out and be okay.
Despite the circumstances that might betray or hurt us—the things that cause us fear—we must learn to trust in each Other.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Shantel Marsell
Apprentice Editor: Melissa Scavetta/ Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: courtesy of the author