Walking in the Other’s Shoes

70e349a3df0c42efbd7e47ce883a8e82-70e349a3df0c42efbd7e47ce883a8e8Good early evening from my office,

It is always interesting to see how people respond to the plight of their fellow humans. How is it we can be both the most caring, empathetic of all creation, and simultaneously the most cruel and ruthless? How is it we can teach our children how to respect, act graciously, and use their manners and as adults exhibit precisely the opposite? I remember the infamous parental phrase growing up: “Do what I say and not as I do.” As if that oxymoronic sentence made up for the contradictions that screamed out loud to our wondering eyes and ears. That saying, it seems to me, has come back to roost. Did we really believe that those who watched us would not learn more from our actions than our words? Did we believe that the habits we exhibited would not stick with our sons and daughters, our nephews and nieces, our granddaughters and grandsons more profoundly that any platitude we might have uttered? I am quite sure if any of us were to think more carefully or critically, to analyze more thoroughly or completely, we would come to the conclusion that the infamous cliché of actions speaking louder than words would be there as the third ghost in The Christmas Carol pointing out the error of our ways and perhaps offering one last chance to atone for our failings.

Of course, it is easy for me to lay out such a dictum when I have never been a parent. It is easy for me to look at the students in my classes and see the good people they are, but often how woefully under-prepared they are to do college level work as I read their blogs, intros or other assignments. I see their eyes and their furrowed brows and I feel their fear of possible failure and certain struggle more than they might know. One of my students asked thoughtfully and honestly today how was it that I managed the course load I did as an undergraduate student, managed the other things I was involved in, and somehow managed to graduate pretty successfully? It was a fair and important question. My answer was also honest and simple. I had failed the first time. I got sent home and I was embarrassed. When I went back to college I was scared. Plainly put, I was not sure I could actually do it. I had never pushed myself in high school and in the service when I did well, people were amazed and actually thought I had cheated because nothing in my academic record implied I was capable of anything beyond what was deemed average. I remember once being put in the corner and screamed at and told I was stupid, only to find out I had a 100% average in a Communication and Electronics (Field Radio Operator School) course. I was petrified. I would note that I did not end up with a 100%, but I did do exceptionally well.

Again, please do not put me up on some sort of pedestal for what I have noted in the last couple blogs; please do not hold me up as some paragon of goodness, for I am anything but. I am simply a person who has learned from his mistakes. I am a person who has realized painfully how what he has done at times has hurt or created difficulty for others. For those things, I am often ashamed and struggle with the guilt dealing with the proverbial error of my ways. As I have often noted in my blog, somehow it seemed to take me longer to grow into what or where I should have been for my age. There are probably more reasons for that than I am able to figure out, but at this point, I know only a couple of things. I try to do the best I can at most anything I attempt, and second, when I fail, I do not blame someone else. The consequence of that, I believe, is that I try to be more gracious with where I find the other than I might have been at some time earlier in my life.

Graciousness, forgiveness, and empathy are perhaps three things that seem to be sorely lacking in our society at the present time. It is always interesting to listen to both sides of an argument, and there have certainly been both sides of the current Supreme Court situation spoken about on campus over the past few weeks. I would note this first. While I have my viewpoint, and certainly some of my students know what that is, I try carefully and intentionally to respect their view point also. I understand the power dynamic of a classroom, but college is where people should be allowed to speak their mind and figure out both what they think as well as why they think it. I understand well, having grown up in Iowa, attending school at a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Nebraska, the more conservative viewpoint on things. I grew up where hard work and “keeping your nose clean” was not merely a saying, but it was expected. I grew up with a father, who might be honestly more liberal than I am. I am certainly more conservative than my sister (who was a biological sister) was. At this point, I know why I believe what I do. Some of it is because of my upbringing; some of it is because of my education and personal experience, but all of it is because I read, I ponder, and I think. I do not simply accept the latest sound byte that is trending, and I can be persuaded to consider something different. Why? Because I do not know everything, and I do not see all the angles of something. What frustrates me is not a difference of opinion, or even an argument over a position. What frustrates me is when someone is not willing to speak about an issue in a civil manner. What hurts me is when someone I respect is not willing to return that respect. What does it mean to be gracious? It has to do with compassion and mercy. These are not merely nouns, they are verbs. How do you comport yourself? How are you able to act when you are accused of something or questioned? How are you able to respond to the needs of another? Compassion and mercy are something that only we as humans seem capable of understanding, and not only what the words mean or how to employ them, but the consequences when we fail to do so. Forgiveness might be the most powerful thing we have in our relationships with our fellow human beings. What does it mean to forgive, and not only in a religious sense of the word, but in a community building, societal managing, interpersonal understanding from one to another? How doe it feel to say “I am sorry” to another and not receive some sort of forgiveness or absolution for the failure we have confessed, so to speak? I do not believe we can be merciful or forgiving without empathy. Empathy has to do with tenderness; it has something to do with our ability or capacity to imagine ourselves in the other person’s position or situation.

It seems to be we are severely lacking in all three of these things in terms of how we treat others in our country and the world at the present time. We have become predominately selfish. Some will say I have worked for everything I have and I should not have to share, but that is not what we were taught even as children. Before you want to run down some anti-socialist rabbit hole: stop. That is not what I am trying to argue. What I mean is the opposite of being merciful or compassionate; it is being unwilling to imagine the plight of the other. To care only about ourselves. That is selfish, and the consequence is division. Compassion is to have some empathy for the struggle of the person next to us, but that does not mean the other has no accountability. Yet, what is a reasonable expectation, and can we give care to the other versus only taking care of the other? The second thing we have become is fearful, and fear is often followed, and quickly I might add, by anger. The fear we have come to demonstrate of the other is palpable. It is unmistakable to such a degree that we have gone down a different rabbit hole, if you will. The recoil of the United States, Great Britain, and a number of other European Union countries should create serious alarm. While that is the case for some, the anti-globalism that President Trump espoused at the United Nations last week should disquiet us. It should serve as a tocsin for us, but too many see it as a positive thing. There is a lot more reason for us to work together as a world order than to turn our backs, but that does not seem to be where we are.

Most of us are not in the one-percent (hence the one-percent), and acting  as we often do creates division, dissension, and conflict. We want to believe we are so important or better than the other, but are we? Yet, we do not see the consequence of this. If we are divided and unwilling to work together, the one-percent keep their power and their money and we are given what is left over, and that is not nearly enough for the 99%. Think about it (and that is precisely what the one-percent does not want to happen). If we are so busy fighting among ourselves, we have no chance of changing what is problematic. We will continue to lose the middle class; we will fight to somehow manage the spoils, and spoiled and rotten they are. Most of us will never walk in the one-percenter’s shoes. Nor do I want to do so. I would be much more content to have a country that cares, a country that leads by an example of goodness and charity. I would much rather somehow help someone a bit less fortunate to become more fortunate. I would rather see the smile on their face and feel the warmth in my own heart. Some things can only change if we are willing to do the heavy lifting and commit ourselves to creating a more just and thoughtful world. In spite of the present situation in our government, perhaps we can make small differences in our own spaces. My former graduate department chair referred to them as small potent gestures. Perhaps that gesture needs to be more than flipping off the person with whom we have a disagreement or a struggle. Perhaps the gesture is to walk both metaphorically and literally down the street with each other shoes one (and if they do not fit, perhaps the pain of that is what you need to realize. I am reminded again of the Phil Collins song about paradise. The world seems to be anything but. However, maybe we can create a small sense of it by our graciousness, our forgiveness, our empathy. I would like to also to say thank you for your incredible kindnesses in response to my last posting.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write or ponder through my words.

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