On “Taking A Walk In Their Shoes”

Legs walking crosswalk Chicago Boots Summer

I sometimes wonder if there’s a set amount of people we have the ability to care about, like the number of faces our brains have room to remember or something. I suppose it would make sense if it were true, even if it just served as a defense mechanism. If we all really cared about every person on the planet, if we could even conceptualize the pain and struggle that the people in this world are experiencing at any given moment, I’m positive we’d all suffer some kind of a mental break. A lot of the time, though, it seems like people don’t really want to care about other people – not in other countries, in other states, or even in different parts of the same city.

When it comes to tragic events, people often say, “It could happen to anyone!” Read: It could happen to YOU! With regard to women’s issues, it’s something closer to, “What if it was your mom or friend or daughter? Would you care then?” I get why this tactic is helpful, but why is it so difficult to be concerned about the struggles of those who aren’t active participants in our lives? Why isn’t being a person enough?

With the types of communication and ridiculous amounts of live information available today, people from pretty much any spot on the planet have the ability to share their stories so that people in other places can read or listen to them. You might think that increased knowledge about the lives of so many different people would increase empathy for the same reason people say, “What if it was your daughter?” but it seems like genuine empathy and concern typically remain reserved for those with which we have the most in common. Maybe our brains just haven’t adapted fast enough to fit or analyze that much information about the lives of ‘the other.’

There are a few groups looking at the use of virtual reality to allow people to insert themselves into different situations and conflicts in places around the world in an aim to whip up some learned empathy in users. Nonny de la Peña, the director of one such group called Project Syria, believes this kind of immersion could work to educate people about what’s happening in a way that might elicit a more urgent response than old fashioned storytelling. This is a really incredible idea, but I’m inclined to point out that if this catches on, it means someone out there will be spending gazillions of dollars to allow presumably privileged individuals to ‘experience’ trouble that is actually happening elsewhere rather than doing anything to fix the problem. I suppose it would promote awareness and encourage more people to help, but it seems strange to me that this degree of artificially-produced empathy might be the only or best way to convince people to help out.

Along the same vein is an event hosted by the Muslim Student Association at both of the Big 10 universities I attended: Wear A Hijab Day.  The event was interesting, and I’ll admit I participated my senior year. I saw it as a statement of solidarity and hadn’t been able to get up the nerve in previous years. Basically, the group set up a table on the quad and invited non-Muslim students to come learn about the hijab, wear it for the day, and attend a discussion that evening. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t attend the discussion and I’m willing to bet that a lot of other participants didn’t either.

I hadn’t thought about the experience in a while before I began writing this, but I really doubt my participation did any good at all. It’s not like I needed to be convinced that wearing a hijab is okay if you want to – and those who do probably aren’t the ones participating. My participation was voyeurism and a chance to give myself an undeserved pat on the back. Why should a hijabi woman need to spoon feed me details about her culture and values for me to support her choice of expression? Wouldn’t supporting these women through trust in and respect for their agency be a more meaningful show of solidarity?

Maybe at the end of the day, we only have so much room for empathy and maybe we really couldn’t handle knowing and caring about everything that is going on in the world at all times. But I don’t really believe we’ve all reached our limits. I think we could all use a little more empathy in our lives whether it’s coming from us or the people we interact with.  It doesn’t really necessitate elaborate technologies or literally spending a day in someone else’s shoes. I think it comes down to really listening to people and reminding ourselves that those outside of our respective bubbles are still people. They deserve to be heard. They deserve to be happy.


Madelaine Walker : Anthropology enthusiast, bookworm & couch potato. In search of a life I’ll be proud to recount in old age. New Motto: Do no harm, but take no shit.