In Their Shoes

I’m a fan of movies of all kinds. One of the many types of films that I like is what I think of as the “dark journey”. That means when characters go through the uglier sides of life. 

A film that I watched recently that captures the dark journey quite well is ”Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot”. It’s a true story of a well known cartoonist in San Francisco, who was a quadriplegic because of a drunken car cash. 

It’s an amazing cast, Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Jack Black. Jonah Hill gives an especially excellent performance.

I point out the cast for one reason. Those guys don’t mess around with films that are not important in some way. They pick winners.

So, while yes, this film is dark and will require you to let go of all your comfortable notions about that transient delusion of safety in this world, it still behooves you to sit with it.

Be comfortable, being uncomfortable, just long enough to watch this dive into the heart of the unhappy. It amply rewards the brief surrender of vain guarantees with more familiarity with those who fell by the way side. Your heart might just open a bit.

Why watch this or any other film, like it? Because it might bring you a hair’s breadth closer to understanding the daily pain that many people live in, whether that is emotional, physical or both. 

It’s harder to pass sentence on someone that you understand how they got there and how they might be literally in too much pain to do the things that you think they ought to be doing. Once you fully understand how people get to where they are, you can begin to understand exactly why they do the things they do. 

Now, pay attention. Because, here’s where most people take a hard right turn and everything goes off the rails.

You don’t have to excuse a person’s bad behavior. You don’t have to enable their addictions or pat them on the back for doing anything that is toxic or destructive, to anyone or anything. 

I’m not advising anyone to sit and hold hands and sing Kumbaya with someone who is actively being an asshole, hurting others (emotionally or physically), breaking laws or destroying the lives of people around them. 

But you can get off your goddamned high horse about it. We can all put our useless judgements about other people’s behavior, back into our pockets and just walk the fuck away. 

You are not only capable of, and allowed to, but you are hereby encouraged to “hate the sin, not the sinner”, to use a familiar phrasing. It’s not religious, the way that I am using it here. It’s just something that we all inherently understand, making it a useful tool. 

We don’t get to pass judgment on people for doing the things they do. If we went through the exact same experiences they did, chances are incredibly high that we would make the same conclusions, judgments and decisions that they did. 

It amazes me how many people I meet who don’t understand failure, abuse, addiction, tragedies of all sorts. They seem destined to do well at whatever they do and they don’t get it when others are suffering. 

Consciously, logically, they know, they realize that people are serving life sentences in prison, for nonviolent crimes and often crimes that they didn’t even commit. 

But they have never been on the wrong side of the justice system and so they don’t get it, in a gut-level way, that real injustice is occurring. 

The prison fights, rapes, the loneliness, the interminable boredom, none of it is real to them. It’s just something that happens on television and movies or… only to bad people. 

Some people get what a car crash is, on the conscious level. They’ve driven by them on the highway, they’ve been in a few fender benders. They’ve had a friend or a relative who suffered or even died because of a car crash. 

But they have never been in a serious car crash. I’ve been in five. Yes, five. All serious, it doesn’t count the fender benders, of which there were several more. Out of the five, exactly one was my fault.  

Many people assume that a car crash is always your fault. It’s true, they do. They don’t have a good reason for that belief, except maybe the crashes they’ve been closest to in some way, were caused by a drunk driver or someone not paying attention, etc. 

They don’t know the shock of not seeing the crash coming, because you were just doing what you were supposed to be doing. 

They don’t know the fear of being pinned in the wreckage. They don’t actually get the pain in every part of the body that causes problems that linger for a lifetime. They don’t really grok the emotional PTSD of the sirens and lights and shattered glass and twisted metal. 

One that I don’t get, personally, is combat. Since I was never in combat, I cannot say with any real sincerity that I understand it. Perhaps, because of other trauma I have experienced, I might be able to imagine it better than the next person… maybe. 

But it’s an injustice if I look a combat veteran in the eye and say “I understand”. Even if I did understand, I still don’t get to say it. It’s rude, so I default to the position of “I don’t understand it, because I wasn’t there”. 

One of the best services that we can provide to the people who matter to us is to remember that our experience was not their experience. 

We don’t get to say things like “Yeah, so you were in combat. My dad was in combat”. That’s an insensitivity of the highest degree.

It’s a method of diminishing the experience of the other person, in a highly negative way. It can cause a person to temporarily doubt their own traumatic experiences, causing them to relive the pain, all over again.

Maybe your dad was in combat. Maybe what your dad experienced was worse than the person in front of you went through.

Still… shut the fuck up. It’s not your job to point that out.

Let them work through their shit, in their own time, in their own way. But try to assume, for just a moment, that maybe dear old dad didn’t have it easier. Because… maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.

First… doesn’t matter. Second, wasn’t you, wasn’t the person in front of you.

Our sole job is to maintain space for ourselves to be respected and for the people we interact with to be respected.

Getting into comparisons of who had it worse achieves neither of those goals.

You might wonder about the various specifics of how you should respond when people go into their setbacks and disappointments. I’m working on a follow up to this piece, one that goes into some mechanics of that.

However, know that the very best first step isn’t about what to say, at all. It’s far more about what NOT to say.

You don’t have to say anything, not really. You’re not going to fix anyone else. But you do people a HUGE service, when you simply give them the space to be who they are.

Let them express their feelings, experiences, worries, doubts, joys, triumphs and so on, without judgement, without telling them what they should or should not do.

Most of time, being just silent, being truly free of all judgement, in a way that they can really sense your compassion, is more than they’ve gotten in a long time, from anyone else.

Your additional words of wisdom, here: