The empathy exercise of “stepping into someone else’s shoes” can provide us with a perspective on the immediacy of that person’s struggles.
There’s even a movement around “empathy museums” where through virtual reality and other means you can get a glimpse into an experience unlike your own.
But shoes aren’t systems. Rarely are these noble exercises paired with an understanding of the systems that led to the suffering. These systems, too, are oppressive and deeply painful.
It’s critical not to take the short-sighted view of seeing the alleviation of the immediate struggles as an alleviation of the suffering.
Nowhere was this clearer to me than when I traveled to Burma and stepped into what I can only describe as concentration camps.
Those immediate struggles of hunger and sickness were real and terrifying. But in interview after interview, those suffering the most quickly went beyond those issues to tell me about the systemic ethno-religious nationalism that felt just as painful and in some ways worse to them.
It meant they were denied employment and even stripped of their business licenses, and that their kids were denied an education. It meant they couldn’t travel because their citizen cards were revoked. It meant the judicial, police and even health systems worked in partnership with the government at every level to make their lives miserable.
Understanding and trying to imagine all of this, at least on some surface level, goes a long way toward developing a more accurate sense of empathy.
When we “step into someone else’s shoes” let’s first ask what we’re stepping into, and if expanding the scope to include systems will bring us closer to the truths we’re seeking.