Do we need to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand their situation? Most of us would say yes. It is common in secular and Christian circles for a group to be told they cannot speak to another group because they have not had the same experiences. As a male pastor, I am often told that I cannot speak to women because I am not a woman. This a common tactic of social justice warriors and feminists. You have never had same sex orientation, so you can’t tell me how to live. You have never been a mother so don’t talk to me about motherhood. But is this really true? Must I experience certain things to be able to speak to a person who is experiencing those things?
There is a measure of truth to this statement, but that is mainly in the area of emotions and feelings. In other words, unless I have been through giving birth to a child I cannot relate in certain ways to a woman who has. Unless I have been cheated on by my spouse I have not experienced the emotions that would come with that type of crisis. To broaden it out a bit, if I did not grow up in the the inner city, I cannot relate in certain ways to someone who did. Remembering this will help us maintain our compassion and humility when speaking to others. As a man, I don’t want to pretend like I have gone through childbirth. When I speak with a mom who has just given birth compassion and humility are necessary. When I speak to a young man whose father left him at six years old I need to realize I have never been in that situation.
But there are also dangers that come with this type of thinking. First, we are all humans who share the same basic nature. Fear, love, peace, hate, joy, malice, discouragement are common to all humans everywhere in every situation. What we share as humans is far greater than our differences. “You must walk in my shoes” thinking focuses on the differences instead of the similarities. While my father did not leave me when I was six, I have felt fear, discouragement, anger, and emptiness due to other circumstances. While I have never been in the exact same situation, I have more than likely experienced the same emotions. Second, this way of thinking leads to only one person who can understand and that is the person in the situation. For example, millions of women have babies, but none of them are exactly the same. Each woman comes from a different background, has a different personality, and has had different experiences. A mom who gives birth in a posh hospital in a upper-class suburb is quite different from a rural mother giving birth at home on her family farm. At what point does a person have the right to speak to another person? Their experiences never line up perfectly. This type of thinking, if taken to its logical conclusion, ends with only one person who can understand my situation. Me.
But mainly the “you must walk in my shoes” mentality is used to deflect criticism and rebuke. The line of thinking is simple. Until you have walked in someone’s shoes you cannot tell them they are wrong. There is a popular song by the band Everlast that expresses this perfectly.
Mary got pregnant from a kid named Tom who said he was in love
He said, “Don’t worry about a thing, baby doll, I’m the man you’ve been dreamin’ of.”
But three months later he said he won’t date her or return her call
And she sweared, “[Lord’s name in vain] if I find that man I’m cuttin’ off his balls.”
And then she heads for the clinic and she gets some static walkin’ through the door.
They call her a killer, and they call her a sinner, and they call her a whore
God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes
‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to choose
The girl is getting an abortion. But we cannot criticize her because we have never been there. This type of thinking is common in the church. “You can’t tell me how to live because you have never been where I am.” “Pastor, you are not a woman so you cannot understand why I refuse to submit to my husband.” “Pastor, if you had been through what I have been through you would understand why I slandered her.” This is a lie. The truth does not work that way. Killing your child is always wrong. Disrespecting your parents is wrong. Lying is almost always wrong. Theft is wrong. Truth does not conform to our feelings or experiences. It stands there like a rock that cannot be moved. A person can rebuke another person if they are sinning no matter the circumstances. Right and wrong do not change from situation to situation. (Though this is not the focus of the post, we can also encourage people despite never having been in their circumstance. Just because your mom is living and your friend’s mom died does not mean you cannot offer words of comfort.)
The second lie this idea promotes is that one person’s life is harder than someone else’s. A woman who has a distant, unresponsive husband assumes that her life is harder than the woman’s who husband is attentive. In one way it is. But it is almost a guarantee that the women whose husband is attentive has other difficulties. A young man who grew up in the inner city assumes that his life was more difficult than the boy from the small town. There are real differences. We are not all called to the same life. There are some extreme circumstances, such as war, child abuse, etc. where the ability of someone else to relate is severely reduced. But in general, we all have hardships and difficulties. We all experience pain, loss, betrayal, and disappointment. All of us face difficult choices in our lives. If we start believing that the difficulties in our lives are somehow unique it leads to bitterness, isolation, and pride.
We need to have compassion and humility in recognizing the differences between our situation and someone else’s. But we do not have to walk in someone else’s shoes to determine if certain actions are right or wrong. In our own lives, we must not cut off rebuke or criticism because it comes from someone who is in a different situation nor should we cultivate an attitude that believes our life is more difficult than someone else’s.