Earlier this week I was listening to stories recorded by folks on the Storycorp website. I listened to 5 or 6. Each one completely different. Each one a beam of light shining on a defining moment, a question, a hope, a dream in a stranger’s life. Without knowing the individuals personally I still found myself holding my breath in anticipation, shedding a tear of sorrow or hope, and having overwhelming feelings of really wishing I could just hold that person.
There are a handful of moments in my life that I know truly sculpted who I am today. Moments where the emotions were so raw and powerful they chiseled and shuffled my heart. There are days when remembering those moments can still provoke the same powerful emotions.
When I pause to really think about the moments, events, experiences that really changed, created, allowed me to move towards the person I am today, I understand that while there are many, there are fewer truly transformative moments. Transformative moments are the ones that act like a metamorphosis, an evolution….a change.
One of those was when my father died.
Looking back, I see that the whole month, from illness to diagnosis to death, was a journey of personal growth and a shift in consciousness for me.
If you read my post called Every Single Day :(https://kathrynwonders.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/every-single-day/) you will have a glimpse into another one of the defining moments in my life.
My father was an Episcopal Minister. He loved the prefix “inter”. The dictionary defines “inter” as :
When I was little, and even when I was older, he kept reinforcing the same idea with me. He referred to it as (and this is familiar to everyone)
Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
We are all in this world, in life together. We may feel separate, different, unique, alone, but we are not. The reason we are not is because of all that “inter” stuff. There is a enormous amount of information on line about all the similar, unifying aspects of religions. The world has become more connected as people travel more easily, as resources need to be shared and as knowledge and information flows more openly. Thoughts, ideas, beliefs are expanded and strengthened through the inclusion of and respect for other thoughts, ideas and beliefs. As the “inter” aspect evolves and grows, the possibility of sensing, feeling the same as someone else, rather than different from someone else increases.
When we have an experience that moves us in any significant way we find ourselves understanding what someone else is going through when they have the same experience. We can sympathize, empathize and express support and compassion. Our experiences are “inter-woven”.
We have a shared experience. This, to me, is all about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Life is about the shared experience we all have with one another, and the seeking out of those shared experiences. The understanding of, and the empathizing with someone else.
What happens when we deem someone else’s experience as inconsequential, trivial, not relevant, wrong, misinterpreted or mistaken? I believe we have a responsibility to listen and hear the stories of other peoples experiences without judgement. To hear them, digest them, even if they are difficult to imagine or understand. I believe being human it is about seeking out and sharing experiences that validate, support our own experiences and beliefs, as well as seeking out the sharing of experiences that are not similar and perhaps challenge our thinking. It is about growing and evolving, about experiencing sympathy, empathy and a measure of understanding of something, an experience of someone else’s, that we cannot fully wrap our heads and hearts around. We do we have a responsibility to be able to reach out and say “I cannot fully understand what you are going through, but I value you as a fellow human being and am here for you. I have a responsibility to listen to you. To hold you in your joy and happiness, in your sorrow and grief, in your fear and loathing. Without judgment and/or discrimination.”
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is about understanding we are not as separate from one another as we sometimes feel. We are not separate from the “Other”, those not “like” us, those who have different traditions, values and circumstances. We are all born and we will all die. We all experience the same emotions, feel joy and sorrow. We all love and are loved. When I look at you I can see parts of me.
And that is what happened when my dad died. As I stood next to him, painfully and tenderly aware of the absence of breathing, the lack of life, I had a transformative experience. I became inter related with millions of other people. No longer was I the “other” trying to comfort someone wrapped in a hurt and sorrow I could imagine but not fully understand. I now had a shared experience that bound me to them in ways that did not require spoken words to express the understanding. Our tears and grief were now interwoven, knitted together through shared threads of love, sorrow, loss, memories.
This experience and awareness is what drives me to be present to and mindful of the ways in which I am like “Others” rather than different from them. It is important for me to strive towards compassion, tolerance and understanding because when I pause, I know I have shared experiences with every other person. And those experiences allow me to put myself, sometimes, in a small way, into the shoes of another human being and remember the joy, love, loss, grief, pain, hopes, dreams that we all have.
When I am in your shoes I understand you are not the Other. I am you. And you are me. And that is very,very powerful.
(My dad and I on top of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire)