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No. 23 – Walking a Mile in Another’s Shoes

March 30, 2011

Have you ever noticed how some older people seem to communicate comfortably with everyone? How do they establish rapport so readily regardless of the other person’s station, wealth, intellect, or appearance? Part of the answer is that as you get older you have more opportunities to put yourself in the shoes of others to appreciate their views, needs, hopes, and dreams. Perhaps for those of us who are younger, the limit on our ability to communicate effectively is the result of avoiding walking in another’s shoes.

Conversely, if we want to improve our communications then perhaps we should purposely put ourselves in more situations where communication is awkward. Perhaps we should seek out the shoes of someone with whom we feel we would have the greatest difficulty relating. By walking in their shoes we could team how to see the world from their perspective and thus how to best communicate in that world. For me, one of those worlds outside of my experience is the world of the handicapped.

A few years ago I had an opportunity, however, to experience the handicapped world, although not by choice. One summer day I dusted off my old mountain bike for a ride on a new bicycle path near my home. At one point the path crossed an unfinished intersection and the transition had a drop-off of four inches to the roadway base. Going down was OK. But on return, my front wheel struck the edge of the unfinished transition and stopped. I did a cart-wheel over the handlebars and body slammed on the concrete. The result was a clean hip break, repaired with a large plate and screws. After a week in the hospital, I was sent home with instruction stay off the leg for 6 to 8 weeks. I started back walking first with a walker and then graduating to crutches.

What did this experience teach me? First of all it has taught me to value normal functions, like walking, sitting, eating, sleeping, standing, bathing, dressing, etc. It is very humbling to require assistance for all of these functions. I also learned how meaningful it was to hear a kind word of concern from colleagues and friends. As I  looked at how I have attempted to serve others over the years, such as writing this monthly column, I realized that this type of service is mostly impersonal. I wonder how many communication opportunities I have missed over the years to share a word or prayer of hope with the handicapped or someone in need, on a personal level.

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