Walk a mile in other people’s shoes

Walk a mile in their shoes
Image: Themba Jay Consulting

It had been a beautiful day in Johannesburg, as my younger brother and I walked around the CBD. We were in Rissik Street when we saw an old man. He was wearing torn clothes and was full of grime, walking barefoot. His feet were painfully dark, to a point that you could easily mistaken him as wearing black shoes.

My heart sank and the enthusiasm I had on the day went out the window. I was shattered.

My brother then told me that he always saw this old-timer around where he lives, near the school residence outside the University of Johannesburg. And where we were was too far-flung from where my little brother stays, a solid one hour’s walk.

Might this man have walked barefoot all that distance fending for food in the rubbish bins around town? What drove him to sleep in the streets? Was he ever financially stable and with a family, perhaps he has children. How was his life before this mess? My mind went on overdrive.

Life is just too absurd, the stories you see when you open your mind and observe what other human beings go through. At times, I’ve found myself listening to a homeless man with a severe alcohol problem telling me anecdotes of how he once had family, a secure job, cars and other material things. And how that came crashing down when he made a huge and unforgivable blunder, or when the woman he was married to drove him out of their home, or plotted his fall from grace in another way, for reasons unbeknownst to him. Often, in this part of life, possibilities are truly endless.

My (current) age means that I haven’t gone through many things other people have experienced, but I find that strolling a mile in others’ shoes — second-hand or brand new, immaterial; lol — is beneficial.

I am learning a lot from that exercise and the opportunity to imagine that it presents me with. On top of that, I gain empathy and learn a great deal about what motivates people.

And just as often, what tears them apart.

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