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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.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think the compassion we feel for other people generally varies with our distance from them.

    Re: Things we can control and not.

    I think most people believe that our lives are shaped by choices and by things that just happen to us. I think we believe that other lives are shaped the same way, so that each life turns out differently because of the variances in choices and happenings. The closer we are to others the more we may understand or sympathize with the ways of others, and yet others always remain something of a mystery to us.

    With respect to religious beliefs, in a pluralistic and ever smaller world, increasingly beliefs are private and individual, rather than shared. They are not something we hold together outside of us as they once apparently were. In addition, they are less coherent than they once were. We struggle to understand our own, and those of others.

    It is often very helpful in a pluralistic world to suspend judgment of others – helpful in a functional sense. Businesses (and, to some extent, nonprofits) operate on this insight or else they fail, even while many individuals and churches and other nonprofit entities do not operate on this insight. This insight, accompanied by an ability to sense what is going on with others, is part of what has been named emotional quotient, or EQ. At the same time, the moral judgments on which many nonprofit entities are founded also show a high EQ when they exploit religious and moral prejudices. (It seems like the dark side of using EQ to me.)

    I don’t think it is helpful to regard our failures to fully understand ourselves and others and our lack of compassion for those at a distance, to that extent that exists, as moral failings. It is better to suspend judgment here too. It is good business, and good religion, in a pluralistic era. It is charity.

    Moral judgments are rude in our context.

    May 31, 2012
    • Moral judgments are rude in our context.

      What kind of a judgment would you say that your recommendations here represent? With what end in mind are terms like “helpful” and “functional” (or, for that matter, “rude”) being applied?

      May 31, 2012
    • Ken #

      The judgments are phenomenological or sociological. Moral judgments are rude in our context in the sense that they are taken as rudeness in our context, for example.

      Helpful and functional seem to be the standards of value in a pluralistic world. The end seems to be survival or success. The aim of counseling or medical practice, for example, is improvement in functioning.

      May 31, 2012
      • Yes, “helpful and functional” certainly do seem to be among the assumed standards of value in the context of pluralism—although I think there are always unstated moral assumptions and judgments at work within and behind these terms.

        Phenomenological and sociological analyses often seem to find it very difficult to avoid wandering from the descriptive to the prescriptive, in my experience. I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means, I just think we should acknowledge it for what it is.

        May 31, 2012
    • Ken #

      Sociology, in particular, is a “science” with an aim. It is a utopian aim. And science itself, in the opinion of Bacon himself, has a moral mission – to control the world to improve human lives. “Functionality” we now call it.

      I know a young Christian woman who has dedicated herself to a moral cause – liberating those entrapped in human trafficking. She does not actually liberate them. She prepares the liberated ones for employment in the United States. She imagines that she is doing this for God – improving functionality for God. Is that what God wants for us? A good job in the private or public sector? If so, God is clearly the ally of industry and the modern nation state, just as the ancient Hebrews made God the ally of agriculture and Israel.

      May 31, 2012
      • Do you think that the people who were previously trapped in human trafficking experienced this woman’s efforts as liberating?

        May 31, 2012
    • Ken #

      I don’t know. Many people do believe that working in the ways we do in an industrial age is a good thing – a blessing. It is part of their religion. Here they call it the American dream.

      I remember reading a work by a sociologist (Richard Sennett, I think) who described what we do in the university in our teaching activity as occupying the time and building the hopes and work skills of the unemployed and underemployed. The observation was that we were the servants of industry and the nation state, increasing productivity of idle or underused workers and keeping them from becoming a political problem caused by low morale.

      I knew a man who headed a program that helped the homeless prepare themselves for work and find employment. It was a church program. I told him about the sociologist’s analysis and observed that he and I were in similar vocations. He was appalled. He imagined what he was doing was God’s work and that God’s work was not so crass. He imagined himself morally superior to university faculty, given that he served the poor while working for God and that he did not think the students at the university were poor enough to qualify for God’s sympathy nor were university professors carrying the cross as he was.

      May 31, 2012
      • I think the victims of human trafficking that the woman you mentioned above tried to help would almost certainly have experienced her efforts as liberating, regardless of how others would have viewed her efforts, or how they would have evaluated her (real or imagined) justifications.

        May 31, 2012
  2. Ken #

    She certainly feels satisfied with herself and it is convinced it is what God wants her to do. It feels liberating to her. It feels holy to her. Ironically, and comically, she feels liberated from having to do the kind of crass and unholy work that she prepares others for.

    May 31, 2012
    • Interesting assessment of someone trying to do good work. Would you say your understanding of the nature of her work is “morally superior” to hers?

      May 31, 2012
  3. Ken #

    No. I would only say that she believes that she is helping others for God. She believes that other work is crass and unholy, and yet she helps others seek work that she herself would not consider. She told me all of this. She even mentioned the irony of it all, and laughed about it. I have done similar work to hers, and recognize her feelings. My impression is that she herself is being exploited by the organization that employs her. I think she is beginning to sense that too.

    It is implausible to me that God is an ally of modern industrial society. It seems to me that the theology associated with functioning in modern industrial civilization amounts to a justification of industrial society in the way that the priests and prophets of old used God to justify agricultural civilization.

    In addition, as I wrote above, “With respect to religious beliefs, in a pluralistic and ever smaller world, increasingly beliefs are private and individual, rather than shared. They are not something we hold together outside of us as they once apparently were. In addition, they are less coherent than they once were. We struggle to understand our own, and those of others.”

    May 31, 2012
    • It is implausible to me that God is an ally of modern industrial society.

      It seems implausible to me, too. Highly implausible. It seems equally implausible to me that God would be better served by ignoring some of the desperate realities that people face on this planet (i.e., human trafficking) simply because the alternative on offer isn’t perfect or because those trying to help have mixed motives.

      “With respect to religious beliefs, in a pluralistic and ever smaller world, increasingly beliefs are private and individual, rather than shared. They are not something we hold together outside of us as they once apparently were. In addition, they are less coherent than they once were. We struggle to understand our own, and those of others.”

      Yes, these are the waters we swim in, in the post-Christian West.

      June 1, 2012
    • Ken #

      I agree that perfection is not possible and that having mixed motives is not a reason to avoid action. And yet, I would not write the paragraph that you wrote. I guess I just feel uncomfortable with the theology the action implies, or I find the theology the action implies implausible.

      In the last posting we talked about how neither of us speaks of sin and evil in the way of Dallas Willard. Similarly, I don’t cite the golden rule. I would say instead that we feel compassion for other people, and for wildlife, and we seek actions that match the compassion. They are elusive, and yet we seek them still.

      I associate the compassion with God.

      We have struggled as best as we can for now to understand our own theology and that of each other.

      June 1, 2012
      • I, too, associate compassion—and the action this entails—with God.

        June 1, 2012

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