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Monday, 16 May 2016

Can you walk a mile in my shoes?

As someone who loved To Kill a Mocking Bird, I was quite taken with the quote "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.". However, forty odd years later, T.I raises a slightly different aspect, in his song Ready for Whatever, when he says he can't be judged (by the listener) for what he's done because he thought he didn't have a choice, given what had happened in his life, and how it framed his decision making, and he ends with: 
'You'll have to put yo self in my position
You can't expect me to think like you 
'Cause my life ain't like yours’

As someone who strives for empathy, I had a startling realisation to the truth of this statement while in Vietnam. I was reading a lot about the country, and I had started reading The Trader from Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks.

Over the years, I've read a lot about the fall of Singapore and a lot of books set in Malaysia both during the war and after, however the Vietnam war was quite new to me, so I read a few books on the journalists and the fall of Saigon and then picked the Cruickshanks book because it wasn't focused on the war, and the rich Vietnamese history is so much more than that period.

Part of the story focuses on the rationing, and a stolen ration book. So it was that poverty post war, and familiar territory.  I'd read about 150 pages into the book when I suddenly noticed this on the back cover:

I was stunned for a minute while I recalibrated the setting. In my head, the book was set in the late 40's, not the mid 1980's! It completely threw me. Logically, I could see I'd just moved history around in a nonsensical fashion, but if you talk ration books, my brain immediately jumps to WWII, not late ‘70’s. All the other books I'd read set in Asia are referring to WWII if they are post war. 

Without the actual date mentioned, or defining situation, my brain just furnished the fictional world in dress and setting of the late '40's. It took what it knew, what it had learned over the course of my life, all my knowledge and put it into the world I was reading about. And it was wrong. Very, very wrong.

We are the sum total of every life experience we have, every lesson we are taught in school, everything we read and see, and it frames our world view, often without us even knowing. It's so ingrained, it taints every we see and think, and we're often completely unaware it's filtering our thoughts. Maybe we can't really ever walk a mile in someone else's shoes. However, we can and should, try.

If someone chooses to leave everything they know, there must be a very good reason. If they choose to risk their life fleeing, there must be little or no safer option. Maybe we need to understand more of their actual life, rather than sitting making judgments from our cosy living rooms. We can’t have a proper understanding if we are furnishing their world like ours, and giving them options and choices they really don’t have the luxury to make. As T.I says, we can’t really think like them if our life isn’t like theirs. And thankfully, for so many of us, it isn’t.

Linking with #BooknificentThursdays


  1. Huh! You're right! So great to see this perspective.

  2. A very important post and the perspective you share here is one that many of us (dare I say even those with influence) almost always seem to forget
    Our world lacks empathy and understanding and instead of getting better, it is in steady decline

  3. Really interesting post Lydia. I had a shock when I first read Mao's Last Dancer. I've read a fair bit about China (kids being born there of course) but much of I'd read had been WWII/revolutionary China/footbinding etc. What challenged me a lot was to learn how poor people still were in the 60's and 70's, even having read about the cultural revolution I was still surprised by the level of restriction and poverty. You are right we need to open your eyes with empathy while always understanding that we can't know everything.

  4. Great post, and you draw very interesting parallels. You're right, we can never truly know what it's like for others. So it would be great if we can suspend judgment and extend empathy instead of always reflecting back on our own lives. #teamIBOT

  5. I remember my sister once saying how she and a friend were having such vastly different feelings to two very similar circumstances. I was about 15 or 16 at the time, and it really stuck with me. We all do come to everything differently, even if we deal the same issues, what's made us who we are determines how we deal with it almost more than the circumstances does.
    I think you're right though, that we need to be empathetic. We need to never stop trying to consider life through someone else's eyes. To do so would be, in a way, to make our experience superior.

  6. Very well said, Lydia. Why so many assume here is no God reason is beyond me.

  7. Oh, this is really important and something I don't do as well as I should. I like to think I try to see things from others' points of view, but suspect it's almost impossible to exactly understand what something's going through or someone's situation.

  8. Such a great, thought provoking read! X

  9. Empathy is so lost these days. Hopefully that changes as I feel it is the root of so many issues in the world. Good post and thought provoking.

  10. So very true. Well said. A little empathy goes a very long way!

  11. Absolutely , we can not think or see the world how others see it, we can empathise and try to understand and wrap our ahed around situations, but we can not full understand. #openslather

  12. First world problems for us, are someone else's dream. I cannot begin to imagine what life is like for others, because exactly that, luckily, I don't know their lives. I just know lots of people have it worse off than me.

  13. We (i) lead a life of privilege and thank you for the insight. I have considered this but from my point of view. Wrong.