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To Walk in Her Shoes: 4 Ways to Build Empathy

My sister, Katie Mason, with her pug, Stella.

Three days before the eighth month marker of my sister’s death, I experienced my first face-to-face encounter with another's utter lack of empathy.

In a conversation with one of my college professors, I was explaining how I had taken the last several months to reconsider my direction in life. I summed up the terrible events of April 7, 2018: my sister was struck by a vehicle when she ran onto the highway to try to save her dog. Both lost their lives that night.

Immediately, he said that was “stupid.” He said, “No offense, but I would have let the dog go.” I tried to explain her love for the little pug, and he said she didn’t think. Knowing the man was a former serviceman, I explained how it was my sister’s nature, that she was in the National Guard. He said without a beat, “so she was trained not to think.”

I was shocked. While I had seen the online comments about my sister's death after her story spread to various news sites, I had not expect to experience such comments in person.

What followed quickly was a sudden rise of rage. I imagined jabbing my fist into his throat, and I was fairly certain a lawyer would clear me of all charges. Instead, I did nothing. I didn’t even say anything, because even the best argument is no good on a closed mind. What good would harsh words do here? One cannot persuade an audience that does not listen.

Currently, our online culture is populated with these people: the people who know better. They are quick to pass judgment. They know how they would handle a situation if it were them. They know how they would have done better. They fail to truly understand.

In a world quickly moving from one water cooler story to the next, it can be easy to gawk at someone’s experiences like they are a zoo exhibit and forget that what is your entertainment is actually a human who is hurting and needing support. We are failing at empathy.

To empathize, we tell people to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes. That is the whole of the lesson. “Put yourself in their shoes.” It’s not enough. People simply imagine how they would behave in that situation. They imagine themselves without really understanding the implications of what it means to wear another human’s shoes.

The shoe has multiple parts: there is an outsole and an insole, a heel, a toe, and more. The shoe is multifaceted. A person is multifaceted. To understand a person’s situation, you must go beyond what is surface level. To empathize with a fellow human, there are four elements we should consider when we attempt to metaphorically wear another’s shoes:

1. To put yourself in another’s shoes, you put yourself in their life. When you put those shoes on, respect the warmth of the person before you. Who molded the insole just so? Who was that person behind the imprint?

When you simply imagine how you would have responded to the situation that other person was in, it's not quite the same as wearing their shoes. You are not truly honoring the statement. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you need to imagine how you would feel and behave if you were that person.

In my sister’s situation, people simply looked at her shoes and said they never would had acted as she had. Someone truly trying to empathize would need to know she was innately protective. It was her nature. That’s not the case with others. I can be protective, but my instinct is to comfort and calm a hurt person. My sister’s instinct was to confront the source of harm and stop it. I would hold and soothe a scared child, but my sister would fight the monster in the closet.

People tend to make assumptions without full information. They can be quick to oversimplify a person’s actions as an indication of intelligence. Like my professor, some deemed my sister to be unintelligent because she did something they considered foolish. Even if she was unintelligent, making an insinuation that one's intelligence justifies their death is an unacceptable thing to say. In my sister’s case, though, she was not stupid. She was identified in school as gifted, she had a clever wit, and, while she had no sense of geographical direction, she certainly could navigate through many of life’s problems. My sister was bright, absolutely bright.

We try to characterize people with incomplete data. When we do that, we can dismiss the full beauty of who they were. If we wish to empathize, we must respect one's personality. We must respect the soul of a person.

The spirit of Katie Mason is seen here as she dances along the beach in her military uniform.

2. Once you know the insole, do you understand the outsole? Appreciate the person’s history. Where have those shoes tread?

One is not defined by a single action, but of a lifetime of actions. Some called my sister brave for her single action, and they are right to call her brave, but she lived a life of courage.

My sister was a medic for the Army National Guard. It suited her instinct to protect and her passion to heal. When she died, she was taking courses to get her nurse’s license. So not only was her personality a factor in her actions the day she died, but her experiences as well. The classes she took, the trainings she experienced.

I’m not suggesting method acting. One does not need to live the life of another to understand their motivations and decision-making processes. Rather, I am suggesting that we take a moment to consider the impact of one's past to better empathize with that person's feelings and actions. We can understand a woman's tears over watching Jaws at the dentist office if we know that was one of her deceased sister's favorite films growing up. (That may have happened to me.) Or we can understand a man's rage when he spots distracted driver on the road if he lost a family member due to a driver texting and driving. We don’t have to encourage him to act on rage, but, by empathizing with his rage, we can be more supportive, which can help him feel less alone as he tries to process and cope with his emotions.  

3. Consider the projection of a life. Where were those toes pointed? What choices were those people making?

When we hear a story of another’s tragedy, we can misunderstand the choice that was made that day. Often the decisions were not really a life or death decision. My sister did not make a decision to lose her life. She didn’t decide to die. It was not an either-or decision.

In the NBC series This is Us, the father, Jack, runs into his family’s burning home to save their dog, Louie. He later dies in the hospital from cardiac arrest. My parents told me how my sister watched that episode with them and she called Jack stupid to risk his life for the dog. She would have done no such thing. It is a statement easy to make while sitting in a comfortable living room with one’s family. A month later, she ran into the road to save her dog Stella.

My sister’s actions were not born out of a calm environment. Her actions came after a car accident that led to her dog escaping. She did not have the luxury of time for composure, for analysis. She only had instinct to rely on. And her instinct was to remove her dog from danger. Like a mom throwing her right arm across the passenger seat, in what I call “the soccer mom save,” when the brakes are abruptly engaged, Katie went on instinct.

In moments where time is of the essence, we can only act on instinct. That day my sister died, her decision was not life or death. Her decision was instinct: soccer mom save.

4. When we imagine we are walking in someone else’s shoes, acknowledge that they probably walked alongside other shoes, and they made choices and decisions because of shoes you have not yet even begun to imagine. Who influenced that person? Who did they love?

People forget the bond of relationships when trying to empathize. They especially struggle if the relationship is one to which they can’t relate. In my sister’s case, they may see a dog but not the story. People value animals differently. Some people are “pets are pets” people while others are “pets are family” people. Then, there are some who don’t even understand why people have pets at all. Understanding a person's values without judgement matters when empathizing.

In my family, my mom refers to her children’s dogs as granddogs. In my family, all the animals get Christmas gifts. In my family, we are the “pets are family” people. I don’t expect anyone to think the same way as my family, but we do need to recognize these relationships are valid for some people.

My sister was the kind of person who nursed a cat who is allergic to nearly everything, a cat that needed expensive animal care, because Katie felt a responsibility to an animal that she brought into her home. Her relationship with her pug Stella began when Katie broke her leg. The little black pug was supposed to be my mother’s, but she bonded with my sister during the months spent recovering from surgery. The dog followed my sister everywhere. When Katie came home from work, Stella was thoroughly ecstatic just to greet her and would go into chatty barks as if to share every detail of her day. In return, Stella was beloved. This dog was not an object. There was a relationship.

People forget about the relationships when passing judgement. Many simply cannot relate. Because they cannot relate and they fail to even try. It is easy to decide my sister’s love for her dog made her a weaker person, an silly being. Yet I wonder, how can they see weakness in love? How can they see silliness in selflessness?

Rather than to see how another’s differences caused a perceived weakness, rather than pat ourselves on the back for having no such weakness, we must respect the relationships that another holds if we ever hope to empathize. If my family were “Pets are Pets” people, it may have changed the outcome of that night. But that wasn’t the relationship. There was a bond, there was a relationship. Relationships impact our actions. Yes, even the relationship between a girl and her dog.

The world needs more empathy. We need more compassion. When tragedy strikes one of us, the victim loses a piece of themselves. Empathy can support us as we survivors of tragedy knit ourselves back together. Take a moment to recognize a hurt person in your life, one whose pain is unfathomable, and take a painful moment to put yourself in their shoes. It’s not comfortable. It can be upsetting to feel what another feels, but, when we all help carry a pain, the burden is a little lighter. You don’t have to do anything, say anything to show empathy either. It’s not in the words that I find the best support. I find it in the eyes of another person. When my professor learned about my sister, there were no “right” words he could have said. (There were clearly wrong words, which he did say.) Rather, it’s in the ability to be present and patient that empathy is shown. I see it when my friend allows me to suddenly wallow in a triggered memory before resurfacing to the present conversation. She doesn’t rush me. She doesn’t push me. I feel her empathy. I know she has considered the shoes my sister wore. She has considered the shoes I wear as I walk through a life without my sister.

All of our shoes eventually gain scuff marks. All of our shoes eventually show wear and tear. Even I forget that from time to time. As I mourn my sister’s loss, I can be callous in recognizing the pain one has in losing a job or losing a marriage. Caught in my own pain, it’s easy to negate what looks like an easier burden. Where is the empathy in that? Until I empathize and fully consider someone’s shoes, it’s easy to dismiss someone’s hurt or say something condescending. It is easier for me to not empathize, but where does that leave the one who suffers? Do we leave them to carry burdens alone?

You can choose not to empathize. You can choose not to help carry that burden. Really, you cannot empathize with everyone and not completely drain yourself. But if you choose not to empathize with someone's struggles, please don’t say anything. Please don’t contribute to a discussion about that person.

For those you want to support yet struggle with how to help, look at how your empathy. I’ve been looking at mine. I see where I am lacking. I see where I will work to be better to my fellow man. I see where I can do better. Do you?


Sarah Mason, a task team member of Women of Toledo, first shared this story on her blog Tackling the Mountain. The blog's mission is to inspire others to overcome the metaphorical mountains faced in life in order that they may live more joyfully and intentionally. It is shared here with her permission. Sarah lives in Bowling Green with her little rescued pug-mix and is the founder of the Write Woman, LLC, a writing business that services small and local businesses.

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