“Never say anything bad about a person until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By then he’s a mile away, you’ve got his shoes, and you can say whatever you want.” Okay, so this is not a very nice variation by humorist Jerry Corley on the famous quote. The original quote goes something like this: “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
Walking in someone’s shoes is a way of describing empathy. Empathy’s that wonderful ability of placing ourselves in the place of someone else, to understand where they’re coming from, to have a sense of how they feel, to see things from their perspective. The empathetic person, when seeing someone cry, tastes salt.
One of the greatest feelings a human being can experience is to feel they’re being understood, that they’re being shown empathy. An equally great feeling is to know that we’re the one who understands, the one who’s expressing empathy!
This is no easy task, putting oneself in the shoes of another. Expressing empathy takes a willingness to look beyond ourselves. We don’t want to be like the person who went on and on about himself when he met someone on the street, and then finally said, “But enough about myself. What do you think of me?” The empathetic person focuses on the other person’s perspective, situation, needs, and feelings, not his or her own. It’s a matter of practicing self-forgetfulness.
Some might argue, “But what about my feelings, what about my need to have someone understand ME?” Unfortunately, there are those who it seems are incapable of showing empathy no matter how much we seek to show them empathy. The blessing of empathy doesn’t always boomerang. Such situations are a reminder that wanting to be shown empathy should not be our motivation for showing empathy (that would put us right back at acting self-centered).
But the reality is that if we seek to understand others we’ll likely be understood. The major benefit of empathy, however, is the satisfaction of knowing that we’re doing what we’re called by God to do, placing ourselves in the shoes of another.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15