Once you’ve walked in my shoes…

Photo © 2010 Daniel Roy CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Click here for the original image

A friend of mine remarked today (in a private online forum), “Once you’ve walked in the shoes I walk in, live the life I live, and feel the pain I feel, then you can judge me.”

This is a common sentiment, which has inspired some powerful stories, and which inspired some involved thoughts of my own (at almost one in the morning). I gather that this anonymous quote has been floating around the Internet. There’s a lot stuffed into that single, pithy thought. I’m not sure I buy into all of it. So I felt compelled to write this short note, expounding what I think is an important truth.

On the subject of “judging”: It’s better never to condemn, under any circumstances. But if you feel led to give correction, do so only meekly and with a spirit of genuine caring. That means if you give me advice, and I think you’re wrong, that—as they say—is that. Each of us has to treat others with respect for his own life choices. You are free to disassociate yourself from me, if you really feel you can no longer live with me and my choices. But most of the time, when we say “Don’t judge me!” what we really mean is that we simply don’t want to listen to what might be good advice from a caring friend. Whether or not I should listen to the advice, I should at least listen to you.

But to require you to live the same life I’ve lived, to feel the same pain, before you even have the right to talk to me? Frankly, I would never wish on anyone the hell I’ve been forced to live. Nor do I particularly want to have to go through yours. Each of us has his own life to live, his own quest to pursue, and his own monsters to battle. (And his own shoes to tie.) Just because you haven’t lived my life doesn’t mean you can’t speak into my experience. Because the ability to do so makes human beings unique among animals, and one of the core elements that defines human community.

Besides, to require someone else “to feel the pain I feel,” that requires an interpersonal utility comparison. (Seriously.) Which I wrote about earlier this year, speaking about the needs of the many, and the needs of the few. How can you know if someone else has felt the same thing you’ve felt? You can’t. You can only know how you’d feel if you were in their same situation. But everyone is different, and so your feelings will never match up to another’s. If you’ve developed empathetic insight, I think, you might be able to understand how someone else feels, even if you don’t feel the same way, based on what they say and what they do and knowing that there are other situations that might make you feel in a similar way to how they appear to be feeling (if that makes any sense). But such insight seems increasingly rare.