Can we talk?
Would you allow me a few minutes to be really honest about something I see in our communities that really needs to change?
I’m not talking about the typical litany of citizen complaints ranging from skyrocketing taxes to plummeting property values; from traffic congestion to national big-box stores running off local mom-and-pop shops.
I am talking about the way we treat each other.
I recently crossed paths with a family in our area going through one of the worst nightmares imaginable. As more details emerged about all that had led up to their crisis, I was heartbroken. It was difficult to witness firsthand just how indelibly our behavior impacts other people’s lives.
While there’s no one person to blame for the tragedy that ultimately transpired in this family’s life, I ache to think it could have all been avoided if people had just treated one another with more understanding.
Contrary to what your parents may have told you, “stick and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a bold-faced lie. The truth is, words can hurt far worse than the injuries inflicted by branches and rocks. The broken bones of blunt force trauma can heal, but the open wounds of bullying never really go away. That kind of pain often persists for a lifetime, causing irreparable damage down in the deepest level of the human spirit. An injured soul can bleed the life right out of a human being.
After seeing the heartache of this family’s experience firsthand, I was haunted by a simple truth I wish I could get every person on the planet to understand.
It is this:
“You just never know what it’s like
to walk in another person’s shoes.”
I am convinced that if a few people had been more considerate of the fact that there was a lot going on under the surface of one person’s life, this tragedy could have been avoided.
The Truth about Mayberry
Let’s face it. I live on a really nice side of town.
In fact, I make my home in one of the most coveted areas of the southern United States. Both nationally and locally, where I live consistently ranks among some of the best places in America to call home.
Here in the heart of the beautiful Texas Hill-Country we are surrounded by wide-open spaces full of stately oak trees and endless blue skies. Our children attend blue ribbon schools. We have our pick from restaurants of every variety, shopping centers of all sizes, and churches on every corner. There are almost unlimited choices for recreation and entertainment. Affluent neighborhoods full of lovely homes, expensive automobiles, and comfortable lifestyles are found everywhere you look.
It is possible to look around us and generally conclude that most of our neighbors enjoy happy lives full of comfort and convenience with little cause for serious concern. Many who drive through our area of town view our bucolic bubble with a quiet envy.
Words like “well to do” come to mind here.
However, if there is anything I have learned in the past twenty years of doing what I do on this side of town, it is this.
“Well to do” doesn’t always mean “doing well.”
Safely ensconced in our quaint little enclave, it is possible to be deceived into believing that everybody is fine.
By virtue of the kind of work I do, I am often invited into a place in people’s lives that others rarely see. On countless occasions I have sat with folks most of us would consider happy, healthy, successful, and satisfied, only to be reminded once again “you just never know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.”
Things are not always as they appear. Seldom, might be more accurate.
Dysfunction, abuse, neglect, estrangement, addiction, and isolation exist everywhere. The wealthy are not insulated from this kind of personal poverty. In fact, wealth often perpetuates it.
Unfortunately, our penchant for pretense only makes matters worse.
None of us ever really knows what people are going through at any given moment. Nor can we appreciate what they may have been enduring for years. In the exact same way people have no clue about the full extent of the struggles you have faced in your life, you don’t know the depth of another person’s heartache either.
Other than what we allow on the surface for others to see, our busy schedules keep us from truly knowing much about each other. The truth is hidden behind the façade of a smile we paint on as we head out the door for another day.
I don’t know if it’s a Southern thing, a Texas thing, or an affluence thing. We sure like to protect our image by portraying an “everything is okay” illusion for others to see.
Henry David Thoreau writes,
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us
to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Oh, to see life through another person’s eyes; to feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
Every day we rub shoulders with people who live in our own neighborhood and never really know the truth about what is going on in their life. They drive by the house as we mow the lawn. We exchange a quick wave and then go on about our chores. Behind the roar of the lawnmower we silently mull over our own problems while our neighbor does the same ensconced in the stillness of their car’s quiet interior.
In the aisles of the grocery store, on the streets where we drive, in the hallways at school, we pass each other throughout our day. Behind the courteous smiles and friendly waves, we have no idea what each other are going through.
· The woman whose recent mammogram revealed a cancerous tumor.
· The seventh grade boy being bullied at school by his more popular peers.
· The father losing custody of his children.
· The couple facing bankruptcy.
· The teenager whose ADHD leaves her alienated from her peers.
· The single mom who just can’t make ends meet…again.
· The elderly senior whose busy children rarely check to see if he’s okay.
· The aging executive let go from his job, still years away from retirement.
· The college student feeling completely overwhelmed with the realization that she is going to fail her semester…much to her parent’s disappointment.
· The good man who would give anything to stop drinking.
· The dad trying everything he can think of to connect with his otherwise uninterested teenager.
· The blended family struggling to broker peace and harmony under the same roof.
· The father of three dying of an illness even the doctors can’t explain.
· The young lady being sexually abused by the only family member she could tell.
· The beautiful woman struggling with an ugly depression.
· The middle-aged male awkwardly negotiating familiar friendships after a recent divorce.
· The successful surgeon who can’t repair a broken marriage.
· The tenth grade girl whose frizzy hair, out of control acne, and rejection from her peers has her seriously considering suicide.
· The new family from out of state who can’t seem to penetrate the local cliques.
· The foreigner whose skin color and hard to understand accent leaves him feeling viewed with prejudice or suspicion.
Someone customarily asks, “How are you?”
We impulsively reply, “Fine.”
The truth is, that’s a lie.
“Fine” is just code for “I’m not about to honestly tell you how I am really doing.”
What Can We Do?
I’m not asking that all of us start vomiting out to complete strangers the unvarnished truth about all that is really going on in our life. I’m not advocating we hang out our dirty laundry every time somebody inquires as to how we are doing. That would be neither helpful nor healing. It would just be awkward. That sort of thing is best done in smaller circles of relationship where trust and confidentiality are assured.
What I’m asking for is more understanding. If we all lived with a greater awareness that there’s more to everybody’s story than what we see on the surface, it might cause us to treat them with greater compassion. We don’t have to know all the gory details. We just have to recognize there is usually more going on in a person’s life than what they let us see.
My appeal is about getting us to be more conscientious of the fact that “we just don’t know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.” If we did, we’d be more patient, more gracious, and more considerate. In other words, less critical and more compassionate.
What if we would just decide, once and for all, that we will never really know what it’s like to live somebody else’s life. And because we’ll never really know, we should go ahead and treat everybody we meet with kindness. No exceptions. Everybody gets our compassion because we just never know how much they might need it.
What do you say? Let’s resolve to treat each other with more understanding.
Perhaps we could all agree to honor three new resolutions.
I RESOLVE to be considerate to EVERY person I meet.
I just might be the only person who treats them that way.
Rather than trying to sort out who gets our consideration and who doesn’t, let’s just make it easy by offering every person we meet the same thoughtfulness we’d like to receive. Instead of sizing up people based on their wardrobe, hairstyle, skin color, the brand of automobile they drive, or even the way they behave, let’s remember, “We just don’t know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.”
All of us have had a bad day from time to time. We’ve all said or done something stupid at one time or another. Who hasn’t been overwhelmed with something going on in our life that’s left us impatient and distracted, resulting in very uncharacteristic behavior? What each and every one of us wouldn’t give to receive a little grace and understanding when we’re not at the top of our game. In our less than impressive moments, we’d sure like for people to remember there may be more going on in our world than what they could possibly know in that moment.
This awareness impacts the issue of bullying.
I’ve concluded that children learn how to be bullies from the adults in their life. How else do you explain it? Somebody is instilling in them what is acceptable for how we treat another person. Us big people are either modeling it for them or allowing that kind of behavior to be appropriate by not correcting it.
If we are critical, demeaning, disrespectful, intimidating, and aggressive toward others, our children will mimic our behavior in those places where they “rule.” Places like the playground, the hallways, the cafeteria, and the neighborhood become the social domains where they exhibit what they are learning (and feeling) from us about how to establish control or inflict humiliation.
Let’s resolve to write a different story for them to read. The one about how EVERY person is worthy of our respect.
I RESOLVE to speak ONLY words of encouragement to every person I meet.
Mine may be the only positive words somebody ever says to them.
Words can give life, or take it. What we choose to say to each other – and how we choose to say it – can make all the difference in the world. Every one of us possesses the power to inspire, affirm, or console with just our words. It doesn’t require money, education, position, or power to speak a few words of encouragement and hope to another person.
When will we learn that our harsh, insensitive, critical, and demeaning words say more about us than the person on the receiving end of our caustic comments? We like to think we’re being bold when we “tell people what we really think,” or “really let them have it” if they cross some line with us. In the end, we’re not being braver or building a better world. We’re diminishing the fabric of our society by becoming a less gracious and compassionate people.
We’re better than that.
I RESOLVE to be the FIRST one to help somebody who could use a hand.
I may be the only one who does.
Helping another person can be so costly. Whether it’s our valuable time, money, social standing, or some other limited resource, helping requires something from us. Interestingly, to spare ourselves the expense, we take fractions of a second to calculate who is worthy of our assistance. Truth be told, the criteria we use to deem who will or will not receive our aid is often influenced by prejudice, stereotype, or bias. It’s not a very pretty picture when revealed for what it really is.
So, what do you say we confront it with a renewed determination that anybody in need deserves our help? Rather than talking ourselves out of it by rationalizing that somebody else will do it, let’s be the heroic-hearted person who acts first.
· I will be the first to welcome someone to the neighborhood.
· I will be the first to get up from my circle of friends in the cafeteria to sit with someone eating alone.
· I will be the first to offer a helping hand to the person who could use it.
· I will be the first to walk alongside of the kid everybody picks on.
· I will be the first to ask, “May I help you?” to the stranger who looks lost, confused, anxious, or alone.
· I will be the first to walk across the room and introduce myself to the person whose skin color, accent, or traditional dress is obviously not from around here.
Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, if we’d treat others with more compassion they might treat us with the same kind of thoughtfulness in return. Our world really could become a better place.
Whatever Happened to The Golden Rule?
Whether you’re into religion or not, all of us can find value in the practical, yet profound words of Jesus.
“Treat one another in the way you’d like to be treated.”
This one simple principle could change the world if we’d let it change us.
Part of treating others the way we’d like to be treated is to remember what it felt like when we needed the support of others.
Jesus said the same thing another way.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The truth of the matter is, all of us are pretty good at loving ourselves. Few of us put off doing whatever it takes to meet our needs, acquire our wants, and satisfy our desires.
While I am all for taking good care of ourselves as a healthy expression of self-love, we must be aware of how quickly we can plummet into pure selfishness if we are not careful. The line between taking care of ourselves and becoming self-absorbed is a fine one. It can be crossed over easily.
The wisdom in what Jesus was recommending is to be diligent at putting the same kind of effort into loving others as we put into taking care of ourselves.
Every one of us is familiar with the sting of life’s blows. We know what it’s like to have the wind taken out of our sails or to be the odd man out. We know how it feels to do something embarrassing or to make a mess of things.
Has it really been so long since we were on the outside of the “in crowd”? Have we have forgotten how lonely that feels? Do those feelings ever go away? Or do we just forget how much we wanted somebody to be on our side when it seemed like everybody else was against us?
All of us can remember those moments in our life where we have longed for some understanding and compassion. To this day, we are grateful for those people who gave us their support when we needed it. We are still a tad resentful toward those who didn’t. And, if the truth were told, we continue to nurse a smoldering grudge toward those who picked on us when we needed somebody to pick us up.
If you’re reading this article out in public, take a look at the people around you. If you’re in a restaurant, look at the diners seated at tables near you or consider your waiter. If you’re at the office, turn around in your chair and take in the faces of the people you work alongside of every day. If you’re reading this at home, just look out your window at your neighbor’s house.
And think to yourself, “You just never really know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.”
Who knows what’s going on in their life right now? Maybe they could use an encouraging word or a helping hand.
Will you be the one to give it to them?
Who knows? Their life may depend upon it.