Are those my shoes? Some perspective on perspective.
Perspective is a funny thing. The older I get, the more that sentence means to me. Perspective can be like wrinkles on a wonderfully aging face, well earned by living hard and living real. You could even compare it to intuition, an ability that grows over time, with a long, winding road that is a wonder to look back on as you stand at the end of the look-out point. “Walk a mile in my shoes” is the saying we have come to rely upon to urge one another to gain or at the very least, seek perspective. The problem is, it is impossible to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Even if we wore the same size, my foot will have a different shape than yours, my gait will be assuredly different, the density and relative strength of my muscle groups will have been shaped by a lifetime of my activity vs. yours. What if we are not the same height or weight? That will definitely impact how those shoes feel and wear to each of us. My favorite shoe might be your least comfortable. And don’t get me started on fashion, design, color, and fabric. This might be hopeless…
Running with the shoe metaphor, one of the most painful lessons of my life regarding perspective came in my third year in graduate school. The program had a mission statement centered on multiculturalism and while important, it was completely unimportant to me. It was the only program I got into and that was all that mattered. The multicultural thing seemed cool but certainly was not a priority, yet interestingly enough, it ended up being one of the most important parts of my training and education. I had zero exposure to multiculturalism and so the awakening was rather rude. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, what’s the big deal with multiculturalism,” I would think, “I’m a gay, Jewish, woman so I am three times a minority! I get it.” But I didn’t. I failed to understand that my blond hair, green eyes, athletic body, bachelor’s degree and All-American athlete status from UCLA, impending Ph.D., and upper-middle-class upbringing prevented me from even being able to see some of the shoes people had to wear let alone be able to walk a step in them.
CSPP (California School of Professional Psychology) was 80% African-American women so I was technically a minority. But I never felt that way because I was the majority, regardless. I walked the halls with ownership and dominance, just like I did everywhere else. I don’t remember the name of the course or the name of the incredible classmate who called me out and took me to task with a passion and compassion I hadn’t experienced yet. It was a class on multiculturalism and as we watched part of the movie Amistad I was, unbeknownst to me, disturbed to my core. The horror and upset was too much for the tiny pair of shoes I was fitting into at the time. I literally could not stand how I felt. A natural reaction is to make offense your best defense, in other words to lash out, deflect, blame the victim so as not to take responsibility for the self or any role I might have played. I couldn’t un-collapse the difference between the white people in the movie and the one in my shoes. I had never and would never behave that way so why did I feel so responsible? Looking back, I understand it and appreciate it, but back then, it was awful. Ignorantly, I leaned on what we did and said to try to fix the situation, remove the intolerable internal pain we felt, and pretend that everything is going to miraculously be fine tomorrow. The Women of Color in my class were reeling more than I could imagine and definitely more than I could tolerate. Being a fixer, I wanted to fix, I wanted all this pain and anguish to just go away. I wanted them to know how much I valued them, no matter how I might behave. “Things are different now; you just have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and move on.” As this fell out of my mouth, I felt the floor drop out from under me and fantasized for a second that I could reach out and scoop the words back into my body, hiding them from the horrified faces staring at me. With tears streaming down her face, she asked me to show her the bootstraps we so often refer to.
She was angry but not with me, just with my false cultural education and utter arrogance. I had been taught those bootstraps were real, but they were for white not black. “This, my dear, is a desperate problem of a terrible lack of perspective,” said the wise sage at the front of the room, holding the space for all this disruption. The professor began to deliver the most important lesson of my life thus far, one combining culture, assumptions, perspective, and mostly, tolerance. Dr. Claudia Owens-Shields remains, to this day, one of the most important teachers in the world, okay, in my world. Where I see a bootstrap, a person of color sees a greasy, slippery piece of leather, out of reach and only textured for those with no skin texture. I see opportunity, of course, because it has always been there for me, even if I am a woman and a religious and sexual orientation minority. Skin color is the deal and it rules the rest of them, still. Until I truly understood this, I could not gain perspective, let alone express compassion.
What I was doing is what all human beings do: seeing things from my perspective. It is an innate, cognitive error that is not borne from malice however, sometimes it ends up being horribly malicious. We have one pair of eyes and so we see everything from one side. Try as I might, I cannot really see things from your perspective. So, what is there to do about this seemingly unsolvable problem? One thing is to be Socratic. Instead of always insisting on knowing the answer, how about just sitting with the question. I know, this is super hard, but it is the essence of curiosity and creativity. Sit, ponder, reflect, and tolerate the not-knowing. I will never know what it is to be a person of color, period. However, I can try to connect to how it might feel, especially if I have an experience in my life that might relate. Valentine’s Day a million years ago, my girlfriend at the time and I went to a local restaurant (this was Santa Monica, mind you). The hostess without the most-ess decided that “our kind” was not really what she wanted in her restaurant; reservations be damned. So, she seated us all the way in the back, at a table she had them pull from the storage room, next to the kitchen door, as we stood in embarrassment at the obviousness of her actions. Every time someone came out of the kitchen, the door hit my chair. We sat for forty minutes before a server came to insult us further. We left in tears. The solution for us was to never go there again, easy, problem solved, there are countless restaurants in LA. But what if everywhere I went, that was my problem? I can only tap into the shame and degradation I felt that night to begin to have compassion for what others might feel daily.
One common mistake we all make all the time when talking about perspective is the insistence that my perspective is better or righter than yours. And we do this without even knowing it! Think about it, when someone else is sharing their view, what do you do? You can’t help but overlay it onto yours because that is all you have to work with. You are forced to fit it into your box, no matter what size or shape it is. You know what you know and of course, you are right about it. Add to that if only they knew what you knew or accepted what you know, certainly things would go better for them (like they are going for you). But how does that make any sense? If you have never had children, how can you possibly think your perspective about parenting matters? But that is what we do, we super-impose our view onto everything in sight. Damn human nature.
Perhaps what we mean by perspective is having the compassion to connect to another’s experience. Being in your shoes is my attempt to feel what you felt because that is really the only way we can connect. Can you feel me, feel my pain, validate my experience without changing it, and still care anyway? Walk a mile in my shoes is at its essence, a plea for empathy. There is less to do than to be, which is very difficult for us human doings, I mean human beings. When I want you to understand my perspective, I want you to stand next to me, in one of my shoes, and feel what I feel. That understanding will naturally lead to compassion and that naturally leads to connection. When we are connected, we are happy.
Every time I see someone with a different perspective, who embraces different things, ideals, music, clothing, language, etc., I try to connect with how they feel. I may not understand why they like music that gives me a headache or why they cover their body in the way they do, but I look for how they look like they feel. It is their self-expression and if it makes them feel good, then it is good. Their perspective comes from all those things that make my shoes uncomfortable for them and I work hard to resist my innate reactions to make them like my shoes only. The truth is, they might not understand my music or choice of dress and so in turn, I would wish for them to connect with how it makes me feel. We are born to judge; it is our survival instinct and hard wiring, however, we have the capacity to do better, to think better. But capacity is not ability, you must take the capacity and work hard to develop your ability. This is the place to start. We have made much of this too complicated to understand and I am looking for where we can start to become more of a community on this planet. We all feel, we all experience, we all desire to be connected. It is this ability to connect on experience that gives me hope. I hope you will hope with me.