Walk in Another’s Shoes

This weekend, as I ran errands, I was listening to one of my favorite NPR radio programs, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” They replayed a 2014 interview with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, where she was quizzed in a game they called ‘I Refuse to Eat, Pray, or Love.’ She was asked questions on dieting, blasphemy, and hate, and had to guess the right answer.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

After answering a question incorrectly, Gilbert learned of two brothers who were the last two Jews in Kabul, Afghanistan, and who each had his own synagogue so he could keep the other out and they would not have to talk to each other. Actually, per this New York Times article, the story is slightly different; they weren’t brothers. However, they identified themselves as the last two Jews in Kabul, and fought over a synagogue. Ms. Gilbert then shared the story of her mother-in-law, who at the age of 30, refused to ever speak to her brother again after he ‘insulted’ her cucumber salad. She went on to add that even today, their descendants don’t speak to each other.

Initially, I, like the members of the audience, laughed. People create and cling to divisions that are so pointless, it’s funny! But then I recalled the recent string of tragedies in the news: the attack on Dallas police, the black men killed during interactions with law enforcement, and the massacres in Orlando and Istanbul, to list only a few. The divisions we see played out in those incidents aren’t funny, they’re horrifying and sad. As we struggle to understand and deal with the aftermath of these events, what can we do? What should we say? And as we seek to prevent them, how can we listen, understand, and unite, instead of hate, fear, and divide? Are we really so different that we are willing to kill those who are different than us or who don’t agree with us? Are we so quick to take offense?

Those of us who work in protocol or international affairs, who study other cultures, and who travel, work or study abroad, have immense appreciation and respect for diversity in all its forms. But I think we all also feel that there is a core of humanity that unites us. In an interview, two of the surgeons who treated the Dallas officers, Dr. Brian H. Williams, a trauma surgeon, who is black, and Dr. Alexander Eastman, Director of Parkland’s Rees-Jones Trauma Center and a lieutenant in the Dallas Police Department, who is white, shared their insight. The two happen to be good friends, and they both could see the various perspectives. Dr. Eastman said, “there’s been a lot of talk about race, and there’s been a lot of talk about how different we are. Police, civilian, black, white. And I think Brian and I are great examples — we could not be any closer friends, brothers, colleagues. And so, when you step to the operating room table … and you look down into someone who’s hurt and injured, we all believe the same: There’s no difference. We’re all pink on the inside.”

The memorial service for these fallen officers, who died as they protected others and their right to protest, demonstrated the greatness of humanity. For a moment, politics, race, religion, and other differences were put aside. Both President Obama and former President Bush came together to honor them, to stand united, and to call for more dialogue and action to build understanding. So what can we do?

Here are the lessons I am taking from some wise and consoling voices I have heard over the past few days. I believe anyone working in today’s global world can benefit from these precepts at home and abroad:

  • 1. Listen to others with an open heart and an open mind. In President Obama’s speech he asked, “Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.”
  • 2. “Protest the right way,” as Cameron Sterling, son of Alton Sterling, who was killed by police, asks of us.
  • 3. Speak up–respectfully, peacefully, when you see injustice, inequality, people being bullied or hurt.
  • 3. Contact your political, religious and community leaders to share your views and insist that they listen to each other and work together to resolve problems.
  • 4. Look for ways to engage with others who are different than you.
  • 5. Have the tough conversations about race, gender and other tough issues, but do it with kindness and a genuine goal of seeking understanding.
  • 6. Learn the value of compromise, cooperation and consensus and practice it in all aspects of life.
  • 7. Start at home and work–if there’s a family member, a friend, or colleague that you have a difference with or aren’t speaking to, reach out and seek understanding. Get someone you both trust to serve as a mediator, if you can’t resolve it yourselves.
  • 8. Remember, “We’re all pink on the inside.”

Protocol Pointer

“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” said former President George W. Bush. We must give others the benefit of the doubt, walk in their shoes, and begin to build a base of understanding upon which goodwill can grow.

As former President George W. Bush stated at the Dallas memorial service, “Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it. We can stand beside you and share your grief.” Wherever you are, stand with those who are suffering, who have lost someone, or who are hurting.

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