I wear a size six shoe—size six and a half if the shoes are pointy and fabulous, which they often are.
Plenty of people admire my shoes, asking me what size I wear, how I walk in heels, or why I even choose to do so when there are other more comfortable styles to choose from. Very few people try to walk in my shoes.
My feet are small. Even my daughter skipped over my shoe size during her summer growth spurt almost nine years ago. We laugh and sigh over the fact that sharing the same size would make it easier to justify our shoe collection/fantasies. We share a common aesthetic for shoes—fun, funky, heels, wedges, impractical, colorful. Sometimes, just because we can, we try each other’s on to get a sense of the fit, the look, the possibilities. We know it won’t actually work, but for a moment, in the store or in our rooms, we try.
A level of comfort, proximity, and intimacy is required to literally and figuratively walk in someone else’s shoes. When it comes to literally trying on shoes, we think in terms of hygiene—at least I think that’s why stores make disposable footies available for patrons to use when trying on shoes. The shoes aren’t ours yet. They could end up being someone else’s.
As a Korean American, born-in-Seoul U.S. citizen, mother, wife, neighbor, and friend with the spiritual gift of being the stomach acid in many circumstances, I know that my shoes can be uncomfortable for others to wear. I find the reverse to be true as well. I’ve skipped many Sunday services because I’m not sure I want to walk in a different shoe anymore. It feels uncomfortable, like I have to squeeze myself into something that doesn’t fit. Has anyone else in the pews felt that way?
I want to be a part of a church that stands in empathy because we have walked in those “other” shoes.
Maybe that’s why it’s easier to express sympathy than to enter into one another’s lives so deeply that we can walk in empathy. It’s easier (though certainly not easy) to feel sorrow or compassion for another person than it is to make a personal, emotional connection to their experience. It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorrow for someone. Empathy is feeling that pain with someone because you love and know him or her. Empathy is walking in my shoes.
It has been an interesting thing to write in this space in the denomination we have been trying to call home for almost a decade. Sometimes people read my columns and offer nothing more than, “Hey, I saw your column in the Companion.” I’m hoping that at the very least they are acknowledging some of the pain I’ve shared. I’m hoping it’s at least sympathy. I am hoping that one day some of them will enter into empathy and walk together with me.
In the days following the shooting at a gay night club in Orlando, many church leaders shared statements about praying for the victims. Of course as Christians, feeling compassion should be second nature to us. What I found more challenging was to consider how distant I was from the violence that had happened in the hours before many of us prepared to attend Sunday services. I took a moment to consider the fact that I knew people in the LGBTQ community across the country, but none in a way where I could empathize with their shock, horror, pain, and fear. I couldn’t walk in their shoes in the same way I long to have people walk in mine.
Words of sympathy expressed publicly in the face of tragedy and loss are important, but I’ll be honest, I want my church to have more than sympathy. Even with the best intentions, it can come off as pity. I want to be a part of a church that, with integrity of time and relationship, stands in empathy because we have walked in those “other” shoes.
I have hope that we will continue to take small steps with new shoes and new journeys in mind.