Walk a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes

In these polarizing times, there’s a lot of lip service to wanting to meet in the middle but not a lot of actual work on either side to do so.  As a legendary racial reconciliation advocate once described it, “the thing about bridges is that sometimes they get walked on from both sides.”  So yeah, trying to bring everyone together sometimes means you enrage everyone.  (Welcome to much of my world, in which I try to explain conservative perspectives to liberal friends or vice versa, or express sympathy towards areligious positions to my religious friends or vice versa.)

Which means that hearing out others whose viewpoints are different from yours takes real effort.  Think about if you were a Hillary supporter attending a Trump rally, or a devout Christian going to a talk by an atheist; you might not feel welcome in such a setting, and afterwards you might hear it from your friends.  Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is so necessary and yet so very hard. 

So you’ll excuse me if I’m cynical about people’s true desire to be open-minded, respectful of differing perspectives, and intentional in keeping diverse company.  We say so but then not only put forth so little effort to do so but actively discourage others from doing the same.  I remember meeting a friend for coffee once, and he came out to see me and saw that I had a Ronald Reagan biography in my hand and practically spat at me while saying, “How can you possibly read that crap, do you realize how evil that man was?”  Never mind that Ronald Reagan is a historical figure that biographies have been written about, that I could’ve been reading about him to better understand just why his policies were so misguided, or that I could’ve been a huge Reagan booster and did that really justify a friend lighting into me for holding such a belief.  People not only want to not walk a mile in someone else’s shoes; they want to make fun of those shoes and roundly condemn anyone for even trying them on. 

And reading books from a diversity of viewpoints is a pretty tame way of keeping an open mind and learning about differing perspectives.  Attending meetings or even joining groups where you are clearly in the minority is a bigger step still, and can be a powerful way to really learn, understand, empathize with, and in some cases agree with opinions different from yours.  Alas, we’ve all experienced the online version of this, in which a political discussion where folks are piling on is intruded upon by someone who represents an opposing viewpoint, and then the fireworks really start to fly and people end up irritated and unfriended.  It’s enough to make us want to stay in our corners.  But no one learns or gains from such polarization.

By the way, I have found that learning another language is another good practice.  It reminds me that there is not one way of saying something, and everyone else is talking funny, but that there different ways of communicating.  This may sound obvious, but the typical American at least is probably guilty of thinking that non-native English speakers are slow, dumb, or inarticulate.  They’re communicating with you in their second (or third or fourth) language, and doing their best to hold their own!  As I run roughshod over my attempt to learn Mandarin, I am faced with just how prodigious a feat it is to hold a conversation, let alone live a life, in a language that is not your mother tongue. 

There are many ways to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  It can be costly to do so but we desperately need more of it.  Be encouraged if you are trying and you’re getting roughed up.  It’s not supposed to be easy.  And you might get walked on by both sides.  But it's so worth it.

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