“I never knew.” — On walking a mile in someone else’s shoes

Photo by Allison Spurlock, used under Creative Commons license

Joe Whitworth tells a story about what it’s like to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. For context, this story is set during the wilderness experience of an American Leadership Forum class.

Within our group of vigorous leaders was a competent professional and respected thinker in her field. She struggled with significant chronic pain. She was hoping to make the climb with us and worked hard during the week to put herself in the physical and mental space to do it. But as the week progressed, so did her difficulties. She ultimately would not make the trip.

Striving both to understand the physical challenges among us and make good on bagging the peak, we split into two groups. Those who were feeling strong would climb the mountain, and the remaining small contingent would set up camp with intentional encumbrances. One classmate duct-taped dumbbells to various appendages and one took no food or water. I chose to put handfuls of gravel in each of my shoes.

From a physical perspective, I have had it pretty good, a lifetime of sports played at high competitive levels. But those rocks lifted a veil of understanding for me. I was immediately reduced to nausea as the sharp objects shifted in my shoes while I gathered firewood and set up the guylines for the tarp. By mid-morning I could hardly tie a simple knot, and by noon I could barely finish my sentences. Things that would normally take seconds to do with my hands now took multiple attempts over many minutes.

I never knew.

A year later I received news that my sister, who had been managing pain from an old accident, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Inoperable. She faced it directly, without medication, in hospice. Resolute courage.

I got home and stayed with her for much of the time before she departed on New Year’s Day. Time enough to say everything that needed saying between us. But having that glimpse of the pain, and knowing the relief she must have gained after dealing with it for so long, was key to my dealing with that loss.

I still have those rocks in a jar by my desk.

Joe Whitworth is president of The Freshwater Trust and lives in Portland, Oregon.

This story, and many more like it, are in the American Leadership Forum’s recent book Everything We Know About Leadership, available now.

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