As a humanistic psychotherapist I have spent years trying to imagine what it is like to be someone else. It is an exercise in empathy that is common to all of us in our relationships that in my view can help to create a balance between the selfish self and the altruistic self.
This is a short piece about standing in other’s shoes and standing in my shoes. It makes sense to me and I hope that it makes sense to you. It left me wondering that if I am standing in someone else’s shoes, where do they stand?
Walking along Whiterock beach on the north Antrim coast at 9am on a random sunday in August. The beach runs from the seaside town of Portrush eastwards for about four miles to limestone cliffs, arches and caves. A mini white cliffs of Dover, on the edge on the north Atlantic rollers.
A few people had been walking on the beach already leaving wet footprints on the sand where the ebbing tide had been. Separate fresh identifiable tracks of early Sunday morning walkers, adults, children and dogs.
As I walked I tried to imagine the people, their conversation, laughter, sadness, despair and joy. I walked in their wake sniffing their historical presence, imagining their shape, size and dress. I wondered if these Sunday individuals and families were in conflict or at peace. If they were walking before their Sunday ritual began. Some time for peace and solitude. An opportunity to touch the greatness and infinity of the ocean that held so many lives in its clutch.
It was all a blur and my imagination was cold. This was not my intention when I decided to come for solitude on the beach, but it became my preoccupation that grey August Sunday.
I thought that I would walk in their footprints in the sand. I began by putting my feet into the largest footprints. Size ten, I am size eight. They didn’t fit. The stride was far too long for me to walk comfortably. A tall man, I thought, wearing a fleece jacket, black trainers and track suit bottoms. He had a deep voice, black hair, rough features, blue eyes. “How’s about ye?” I could hear him drawl as he passed me by. I stepped aside to let him pass.
Next I walked into a Childs foot print. She was about eight years old walking hand in hand with her mummy. I didn’t know why a girl, just a feeling. She had short jaunty steps, wore pink Barbie type shoes and wore a long Sunday coat, ready for church. I felt like skipping along, but knew that I would get out of step.
I tried another pair of footsteps on for size. I had to turn my toes inwards and nearly fell over, my knees knocking together. My shoes fitted the dents in the sand, but my body did not walk the walk that they imposed. I felt a gangling youth, sixteen or seventeen years old dragged out of his bed on a Sunday morning to partake of the family need for breathing fresh sea air before visiting the stuffy relatives. All he wanted to do was lie in bed and scratch. Ah, I remember, those were the days.
I gave up walking in other peoples footprints at that point and walked slowly alone for a while, watching the north Atlantic rollers gently slide up the shallow beach to the low water line. The spume and froth slowly returning after each invasion of the sand. Leaving behind a washing powder lather tide mark of bursting bubbles. I listened to the distant roar of waves crashing onto the rocks forcing its way into the crevices and blowholes. The sound of pebbles and stones being polished against old and new soothed me.
I looked back and saw my own footprints in thesand. I stopped my meandering and walked back a while. Turning, I walked back in my own footprints. I noticed how comfortable they felt. An easy fit, easy on my senses, my body attached and aligned. I sensed a disappearing echo of the people that I had recently imagined whilst walking in their footprints. They turned and smiled and waved goodbye to me. I smiled unselfconsciously, waved back and whispered, goodbye.
I returned home that grey sunday in August with a fresh perspective. As a professional I have walked the same walk every day of my working life. Trying on shoes that don’t fit, that squeeze my feet, that knock my knees and at times cause me to fall over. Believing that if I try hard enough I will be able to fit all the shoes that appear before me, even if they don’t fit. I reached a stage where I failed to notice that they don’t fit. Recently I have begun to notice that I do not want to continue to stand in other people’s shoes. I am tired and my feet are complaining. I am also aware of the awkwardness that I felt on the beach trying to walk in other peoples shoes and of the images that I conjured up. I know nothing about those people, their lives, history, hopes and fears, all that I knew was their shoe size and that they walked the beach a while before I did. The rest I had made up.
I was aware that as I waved and whispered goodbye on the beach, I was saying goodbye to a part of myself that walked on along the beach to merge with the spray and spume of the north Atlantic rollers. That part of myself that had gained such comfort spending many hours of every week, of every year trying to be in other peoples shoes because I was afraid to stand in my own shoes and too uncomfortable to make my own footprints.