It’s an oft used analogy to indicate perspective taking or developing empathy ‘to walk in someone else’s shoes’. I’ve been thinking more and more about why slipping into someone’s experience would be as simple or whether the familiarity of the idea is both why it works and fails miserably. Because I would go even further to say that excludes a wide range of people and other beings who either do not walk or don’t wear shoes.
So perhaps this way of helping short cut understanding has set up a rather unhelpful set of assumptions. We are all conceptually limited although at times we’d rather pretend to ‘know’ than deal with the uncomfortable realisation that we might just not ‘get it’. To ask the question ‘how do we know what we don’t know’ or ‘why did this form of knowing become accepted’ invites an alternative, agnotological approach to the shoe idea.
What got me thinking about this again was my experience of starting bare foot running, not exactly, but the ‘shoes’ I wear are simply a piece of rubber and some rope (the silver toe nail polish is optional but I reckon it makes me run better). Peoples responses were intriguing, no-one believed they were running shoes. The model of the shoe did not fit, a preconceived idea had already defined how my feet should be covered for the purposes of training. My shoes were wrong according to the dominant knowledge available from the various scientifically based truths about human physiology and biomechanics. Therefore the idea of trying to run in my shoes was so against popular knowledge my decision seemed incomprehensible, illogical and irrational. Judging from some of the condescending comments and Spock like eyebrow raises, I was deemed a little bit cray cray, a sort of ‘these aren’t the shoes you’re looking for’ Jedi mind trick was even tried.
It’s taken my body a while to adjust to a different style of running, but I love it. All the concern about what harm I might do running in a more natural way seem a little cray cray to me. Some lives are like my new running ‘shoes’. They are incomprehensible because of the ideas used to construct them. When people imagine wearing them they have already decided how it might feel, how painful and uncomfortable and awkward they’d be. It might not cross their mind that they could feel light, free, sensitive and liberating. I suspect people who identify as transgender or are seen as ‘disabled’ have their lives miss-imagined or only framed in pejorative ways.
But I think if we can become open to the idea that we might be wrong, to be curious and prepared to recognise the ways our own vulnerability shapes our perception, that is, to understand our own shoes, why they feel comfortable, where they fit best, what terrain they give traction on and where they become unstuck could be more useful. But again, from the outside our ideas simply reflect our own fears, doubts and insecurities and not necessarily the lived experience of others.
And as for seeing through the eyes of another? Well that is no mean feet.