Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes – A Lesson in Empathy and Patience

CHAPTER ONE:  Years ago, I worked at a catering company pulling orders for the people who drove snack-filled catering trucks around to local businesses. Every day, I would draw order sheets from a wire tray, fill the orders and put them aside to be collected by the driver. Since some drivers were very nit-picky, our rule was to always draw the top order sheet-no digging in the stack for a friendlier driver; you get who you get.

Chuck was a big guy, strong, and kind of quiet, most of the time. He seemed like an ex-Marine type. He was probably around 50ish and wore a crew-cut, which added to his militant facade. Oh yeah, and he was mean! You wouldn’t know that unless he had a reason to show you. And for me and the guys who filled his orders, he showed us every freakin’ day!

If, by some unfortunate set of circumstances, you drew Chuck’s order sheet, you would live in fear for the next couple of hours, wondering if you would screw up his order and invoke his wrath! Well, as divine misfortune would have it, on one particular day, I drew the short straw and knew that I would soon be sitting down with Chuck to enjoy some bitter Kool-Aid, fortified with anger and belittlement.

When the drivers started returning from their morning runs so they could load up for their afternoon runs, the air grew thick and dark around me. My heart started racing. I just knew that any second, my name would be called and I’d have to walk the green mile up to the front of the stock room. “Scott?…” I heard over the sound of my heartbeat swelling in my head. “Hey, Scott… Chuck’s looking for you.”, a co-worker said, “Good luck!” I winced, then turned and headed up front to face my accuser.

*   *   *

Now, at this point, I could tell you how Chuck talked to me like I was incompetent; like I was a complete idiot and unfit for the job. I could share with you the lovely and colorful words he used while addressing me. I could explain that his issues were completely out of my control because certain items were out of stock which is what caused the order to be incomplete. I could relate how I tried to explain these things to Chuck (like everybody did every single day), but that Chuck wouldn’t let me finish explaining. I could share how stressed I felt having to submit myself to this torture and how I felt like quitting every time I had to face Chuck. But you know what? That’s really small stuff and it’s just not important. In fact, what happened next had such a profound effect on me, it changed my life forever!

CHAPTER TWO: I walked away, after my shredding by Chuck, a broken and humiliated young man. I’m sure I looked like death warmed over because a co-worker asked what was wrong. A minute later, I was surrounded by a few of my work mates as I explained how Chuck was in rare form on this particular day. Next, we each took a turn and eloquently submitted our disapproval of Chuck. While out from the office, my boss, Kenny, strolled, whistling a happy-go-lucky little tune.

“What’s up, guys? You talking about Chuck?” Kenny asked.

“Yes,” I offered, “I just had a run-in with him. That man is pure evil! Why does he have to be such a jerk?” I was still shaking.

Kenny leaned into our circle and lowered his voice. “Well, there’s something you guys need to know about him. Chuck’s dying of cancer.”

Stunned! We all just stood there completely silent for what felt like hours. After Kenny said those words, all voices seemed to be muffled, my vision was closing in around me and I felt totally numb. Suddenly, I was all alone…at least in my mind I was alone. A million thoughts all pushed and pulled, each one demanding my attention…each one a call to action! I wanted to find Chuck and throw my arms around him and tell him that I was so sorry for what he was going through. I wanted to apologize for every unkind thing I had ever said about him. I had no idea that something so traumatic and devastating might be the cause of all his anger and bitterness. I imagined his family hearing the news of Chuck’s impending deterioration and forthcoming death and saw how their souls were ripped from them upon hearing the news.

I could go on for a hundred pages, filling each one with all the thoughts, all the pictures, all the sorrow that filled me inside. I couldn’t go back in time and change anything. I couldn’t be more understanding to Chuck and avoid my past verbal transgressions against him. And what saddened me most was knowing there wasn’t going to be a happy ending like some kind of tragic movie that ends after those who experienced the tragedy get a second chance and everything ends up sunny, cheerful and “happily-ever-after”. Chuck was dying of cancer and there was nothing I could do to change that. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t anything I could do to make things a little better, at least for a while.

CHAPTER THREE: “Chuck’s dying of cancer.” Those four words represented one of the most important paradigm shifts in my life. Over the next few days, I didn’t end up pulling Chuck’s order sheet. In fact, he missed a couple days from work and had a substitute driver. And even though I was concerned, in a way, his absence was good for me. I made it to the weekend and had some time to reflect on the gravity of the experience. I began noticing things when I was out shopping or at a restaurant. I began observing little details about people. Some people were very obviously happy, while others didn’t seem so happy. Some people interacted with cashiers and store associates with good cheer while others were bitter, demanding, and unfriendly.

I especially noticed this while standing in line at checkout registers. The longer the line, the more obvious it was which people were bitter and unhappy.  All I could think was, “What could be going on in their lives that’s making them so unhappy?” I processed through the potential scenarios. Maybe they lost a job or can’t pay their bills. Maybe they had their electricity turned off or their house is in foreclosure. Maybe they’re ill or a loved-one is ill, and maybe in the hospital. They could have just left the hospital after receiving some bad news, or worse, maybe someone close to them has died. There were a million reasons going through my head; each one gave a foundation to their bitterness. My heart melted for each of them. And though their misfortune doesn’t excuse their poor treatment of other people, it goes a long way to potentially explain it. I wanted to hug each one and tell them that it was going to be all right. But how could I know that? What could I say to them that might take away the pain?

After this weekend had ended, I chose my course of action. First, from then on, I would never again jump to conclusions about a rude or angry person. Second, I vowed to only show compassion and to be understanding and calm around them. Third, I would do my best to ease their suffering by treating them well, being patient with them, and trying to lighten their day, even for just a couple of minutes. Fourth, I would listen to them without judging them and be there for them in any way I was capable during our brief moments of connection.

CHAPTER FOUR: It is said that before criticizing someone, you should walk a mile in his shoes. Where before I understood that saying intellectually, now I understand it through direct experience. I cannot definitively tell you the fate of the good Mr. Chuck. I moved on to a new job a few months later. But what I can tell you is that I applied all four of my vows with every opportunity that I got with Chuck. In fact, I even struck up somewhat of a friendship with Chuck and began getting along well with him. He, in turn, treated me better. Whether it was because of the soft spot in my heart or an unwillingness to accept the truth, Chuck seemed to be getting better.

My experience with him permanently changed my behavior and how I interact with all human beings. And for the rest of my life I will continue to be influenced by this experience. A tragedy that brought darkness for Chuck, brought enlightenment for me…something for which I can never repay him. Whether he knew it or not, he made a difference in my life. And true or not, I feel like I made a difference in Chuck’s life…even if only for a few moments.

Have you had an experience that changed you in a profound way?

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