My Neighbour’s Shoes
“You shouldn’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”
The phrase is often consigned to the dustbin of well-worn clichés, even if most of us would basically agree to the sentiment it is attempting to express. Behind every destructive or harmful or just plain irritating behaviour or set of behaviours that we seek to “correct” in others is a human being with a story. Rather than resorting to judgment and easy labels (“addict,” “psycho,” “loser,” etc), we ought to take time to get to know the story behind the behaviour—to make some attempt, however minimal, to understand the journey that has led someone to where they are now.
This was, in very rough form, the message delivered by Dr. Gabor Maté at a lecture called “Who is My Neighbour?” here in Lethbridge last night. Dr. Maté is famous for his work on identifying and addressing the root causes of mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and has spent twelve years working in one of the most desperate contexts in Canada—Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside. While the depth and breadth of Maté’s knowledge and experience with addiction, homelessness, and mental illness was on full display in his excellent lecture, the message, in the end, was quite simple: treat people—all people—the way you would like to be treated. If you would like to be the recipient of compassion and understanding, then offer these things to others. If you would prefer that people make some attempt to understand why and how you have ended up in a difficult situation, make this attempt with others. If you would like to be treated like a human being instead of a project or a problem to solve, then treat others—especially those who are easiest to dehumanize—like human beings. Not exactly rocket science, is it? Do unto others and all that…
Yet while the concept might not be difficult to grasp, we find this incredibly hard to put into practice. It’s so much easier to make snap judgements—to label those who don’t think like us, or act like us, or believe like us as unintelligent or unspiritual or hopeless or immoral or stubborn or _____. It’s so much easier to convince ourselves that our dispositions, behaviours, and beliefs are the result of the choices we have (freely) made (when it comes to the good ones), or are the result of a complex set of circumstances that we couldn’t control (when it comes to the bad ones). But when it comes to others, we assume that the bad stuff represents some inherent flaw in their nature or character or race or orientation or is the result of their upbringing or religious indoctrination or whatever. We can usually tell a pretty nuanced (and in some cases, imaginative) tale when it comes to the root causes our beliefs and behaviour, but when it comes to other people, it is suddenly much easier to accept easy (and harsh) explanations,
Maté’s plea was for a recognition of the centrality of relationships. This, too, can sound cliché. “It’s all about relationships”—yeah, sure, but what does that mean? Well, it undoubtedly means a lot of things. But at the very least, it means that we don’t write people off or place them in categories that serve to reinforce boundaries between us. It means that we don’t judge and condemn people in order to keep them at a safe distance from us. It means that we take the time to hear people’s stories—to be patient enough to trace the lines that have led from point A to point B in a human life and to consider how the unique set of experiences (positive and negative) that they have faced might have affected us. It means that we do the sometimes difficult work of discovering and reinforcing the things that unite us as human beings, rather than magnifying (or inventing) the things that divide us.
Of course, as I listened last night I couldn’t help but think of how Maté’s insights might be applied in the realm of faith. We are often so quick to judge people who don’t think or believe like us. We tend to assume that our worldviews are pretty much an exact map of reality and that our job is to get others to quickly and straightforwardly adopt our map. But we very often have no idea what has led someone to accept or reject this or that “map” of the world. We have no idea what shadows might lurk in the background, what associations or connections with this or that set of religious beliefs might exist, what abuses or misuses might have occurred in someone’s past, what obstacles might exist for someone else that we have never faced. Or, for that matter, the things in our own life that conspire against our being open to God’s coming in ways that we do not expect.
It seems to me that religious people are often uniquely adept at reinforcing boundaries and trading in snap judgments. This isn’t always the case (thank God!), but it occurs often enough to observe a trend. When it comes to talking about faith, perhaps we could use Maté’s reminder that relationships are central—that our first, and most important task in these matters, is not to “convert” our neighbour but to try to understand their story to this point just as we would hope for the same from them. This is at least part of what it means to love our neighbours as ourselves.