Stepping Out In Someone Else’s Shoes




Our shoes take us places. We harness our feet, that age-old mode of transport so easily forgotten about in a world where time is money and so each of us advance through our days, firmly bound inside our own footgear.

Shoes are important, of course and people love them for various reasons. The purpose of shoes is enabling us, after all, to get on our divergent ways, allowing for the various activities we engage in. And, therefore, for many, it’s mainly for the protection and comfort shoes give that they are valued.

Others love shoes for their aesthetic value. The beauty of a shoe’s shape and colour and design a work of art as important as any other. Even at the end of a pair of shoes’ life of service, worn and falling apart at the seams, every crease and loose stitching exudes lived-through life stories and experiences.

While reading up on the history of shoes, I found many interesting historical shoe facts. Apparently six-inch-high heels were worn by the upper classes in 17th Century Europe. To hold the person wearing the heels upright, two servants, one on either side, were needed. Taking this fact into account, it does seem like women’s shoe-wearing abilities had evolved over the years, maybe to our own detriment. Making sure you can walk properly in heels before going out is a prerequisite for wearing these. Nobody wants to teeter along the pavement, looking like a giraffe with sever backache. Funnily enough though, it seems like the world has also made attempts to adapt to footwear as in the 18th Century legislation was supposedly designed to create paved walkways within cities to allow women to wear less practical shoes with higher heels.

Another delightful fact that caught my attention was that boots for ladies became quite fashionable after a pair of boots was designed for Queen Victoria in 1840. Boots off to the queen, is what I say! How I love my boots: they hold me in their steady grip throughout busy days, flitting between various means of public transport.

And what place better to do shoe gawking than on public transport: rows of travellers’ shoes lined up like books on a shelf. For every mile walked and every chapter of life lived by any other person has its own story; holds its own unique perspective. All those shoes like tales ready to be told, if only they’d be still for a little while longer and not rush off at the first indication of the next stop, the next destination approaching.

Cinderella too was trying to beat the clock and lost her glass slipper in the wake of a flustered flee from time. For her, like for Sex and the City’s modern-day heroine, Carrie, things seemed to have worked out just fine in the end. It was many episodes and series and a movie later, when Mr Big declared his love to Carrie at last and crowned her foot with a Manolo Blahnik to, in typical business-like lingo, “close the deal.” But then again: who knows how long the happy couple stayed a perfect fit. Happily-ever-afters are only that: a promise with no trail of evidence to follow up on. If Cinderella or Carrie knew of the shoe ceremony in the Middle Ages during which a father passed his authority over his daughter to her husband, they might not have been so overjoyed at closing the deal with a shoe. At these medieval weddings the groom handed the bride a shoe that she put on to show she was then his subject…

Even from early childhood we are fed stories (a few including frightening visions) of shoes and their wearers. Some fairy tales tell of how the antagonists, as well as the protagonists, came to bitter endings: Snow White’s stepmother was forced to dance to death in a pair of glowing-hot iron shoes. The result of her cruelty and vanity. The little girl in her red dancing shoes had to get her feet amputated and replaced by wooden feet as a consequence of having become too enamored by her new, red shoes and idolizing them (who else can associate with this love for and fixation with shoes? I, for one, certainly can). Cinderella’s Ugly Stepsisters had to make do with no prince, stayed ugly, ignorant and ridiculous forever after.

Perhaps these scary, dark ramifications resonate with something deeply resident within the sediment of our subconscious right down to the soles of our feet. There lies the knowing of the catastrophic consequences that might follow if getting too wrapped up in one’s own agenda; getting too enveloped in one’s own shoes. Or, just as bad, trying to get into someone else’s shoes because of purely selfish motives. Let the futile actions of Cinderella’s spoiled Stepsisters serve as a warning to us all: one cut off her big toe, the other a bit of her heel in true greedy, selfish, hell-bent-on-getting-whatever-we-want style. And all of that pain and effort for nothing.

To willingly walk for a mile, or even only for a meter or two (a start is better than nothing) in someone else’s shoes, in another’s footsteps, to experience what their journey is like for them, is probably one of the most challenging things in life. Because we are, after all, so sewn up in our own separate skins that attempting to connect with another closely, stepping into their shoes and crawling into their skin for a while, generally seems nigh impossible.

Years ago I hiked the Machu Picchu trail up the Andes Mountains and a memory from that trip still stands out clearly in my mind. Even clearer than the amazing stony staircase that led us up and down mountain sides like a never-ending route to a giant’s castle in the clouds, do I remember the feet of the porters who were scrambling up the mountain in front of me. These men were incredible. You didn’t have a lot of time to watch them. Before you know it they’d be out of sight and so would the large bags of camping equipment, provisions and hikers’ backpacks that they’d carry on their backs. They’d scramble at a fast pace, much faster than any of us, up the mountainside. No horses, mules or llamas were assisting them. And this they did in open-toed sandals (hojotas) made from recycled tyres. It was clear that their feet knew the mountain and the mountain knew them.

They were the complete opposite of us tourists, cladded in hiking boots with specially designed gripping soles and proper ankle support. I dread to think what might’ve happened if porters and visitors were to swap shoes: same journey; different shoes; completely different experience altogether.

When my niece was a toddler she used to position her tiny tootsies into any pair of shoes she could get her toes on. She would shuffle forward, be it in an old pair of tattered flip-flops or strappy high heeled sandals, determined to conquer the shoes and make it her own. Still, to this very day, that same daring spirit had not left her although she had learned that shoes her own size are safer and more appropriate. Yet some days, I have to admit, I miss that little girl who wanted to learn about the world from another’s standpoint no matter what.

The dream experts say that dreams about shoes indicate certain paths we are traversing in our lives. If you are wearing tight shoes, it means that the road you are travelling on is hard and full of sorrow. And apparently dreams about dirty, worn shoes are meant to encourage the dreamer to examine his or spiritual walk, or inspire the dreamer to undertake a walk of faith.

Last weekend (21.01.17) had been a bit like a dream, a surreal, historical, global event: thousands of people, united in a walk of faith, treading together in crowds through city streets all around the globe. Their beliefs and hopes and sentiments echoed in the sound of thousands of marching feet and banners and posters, carried above their heads for all the world to see. Throngs of individuals moving forward in one direction, walking on behalf of self but also on behalf of others in a march against a culture of self-absorption. Undaunted and purposeful. People from various walks of life but singular in purpose became a reminder to me personally, and maybe to all of us, that we should guard against becoming too comfortable in our own shoes. A warning, just for in case we run the risk (as did the girl in the fairy tale of The Red Shoes), of getting so attached to our own shoes that, in the end, ‘it seemed, (their shoes had) grown on to (their) feet (as they) could not unclasp them’ (Hans Christian Anderson, 1835).

I guess the challenge lies in trying not to get so attached to our own dramas, so embroiled in our own intricate and complex lives, that we are unable to connect with the lives of the people around us. Maybe it’s a good idea to, every so often, try on someone else’s shoes. I think it’s called empathy.



“Empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people. (…) Empathy is the ability that allows us the perception of things around us, outside of ourselves.”

– C. JoyBell C.