Why You Shouldn’t Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

shoesYou may have heard the grumbling in the media recently over Gwyneth Paltrow’s failed food bank challenge. Gwyneth bought $29 of groceries for one week, which is the amount 1.7 million New Yorkers who receive food stamps are reportedly given. Gwyneth made it only 4 days into the challenge before she admitted defeat. She was then heavily criticized by many people for not only her failure to live on less but also for the strange items she purchased (including several limes but no meat).
This isn’t the first time that Gwyneth has been criticized for her cluelessness about what life is like for average people but I believe she was unfairly targeted by critics in this case. I think the real problem is with the challenge itself.
The #FoodBankNYChallenge was issued to Gwyneth and others by Mario Batali in an effort to raise awareness about hunger and the challenges of living on a strict food stamp budget (the American program has recently been renamed SNAP). Batali said, “for one week, walk in someone else’s shoes. Knowledge is power, and by truly understanding what our friends and neighbors are going through, we will be better equipped to find solutions.”
Sounds like a noble endeavour, right?


Maybe. Maybe not.


Consider that the challenge is meant to be undertaken for one week. Then consider the quote, “…by truly understanding what our friends and neighbors are going through.”


One week, at the end of which participants are able to leave the challenge behind and return to their regular lives with, one would hope, a new perspective.


I have heard of many church youth groups organizing overnight camp outs on the streets of major cities in order to help young people gain perspective on what it is like to be homeless. But how can a young adult who lives at home in relative comfort with his parents, with food on the table, a roof over his head, and most likely a bright future full of potential understand the plight of a homeless person by spending one night on the streets?


The difference between a person who is living in an undesirable situation such as poverty and a person who is not is the ability to leave that situation. Consequently, the person who attempts to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” can never truly understand the implications of living such a life.


Do you truly understand what it is like to live in a new house if you have only taken a tour of it? Would you truly understand what it is like to live the rest of your life in a wheelchair if you sat in one for an hour, a day, a week?


As long as you have the option to exit the home or the wheelchair or the life of poverty you are incapable of understanding what life is truly like for someone else.


Which begs the question; why do a challenge like the one Gwyneth did in the first place? Isn’t it better to make informed decisions based on facts than to attempt to force ourselves to feel a level of pseudo-compassion? Gwyneth could do much good by simply blogging about the issue, making a sizable donation to the organization, and encouraging others to do the same.


When you attempt to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” you will only ever understand what it is like to borrow their shoes for a little while. You can never truly understand what someone else’s life is like. Don’t force yourself into a situation that is designed to elicit compassion that you don’t already feel. Instead, use the resources that you have available to you now. Listen, think, research. This is a better way to help each other.




  1. Leslie Burris says:

    Thank you for your post!

    In regards to the best way to understand other people’s perspectives is to admit we don’t understand. Since human beings were created for community, perhaps lack of humility is the main issue. We would rather “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” than listen to them and love them.

    To me, the best way to raise awareness for a cause is to live. Live out what drives you. Be content to influence your circle about something that matters to you. People adore folks who aren’t out to make a name for themselves, but live to love others well.

  2. Lorraine Pattison says:

    Thank you for your blog on walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s good because it highlights the pointlessness of what some people do in order to show they care.
    Putting oneself through a tiny fraction of what someone else has to go through on a daily basis is something of an insult to people in poor situations because they do not have the added burden of fear, hopelessness and misery regarding their circumstances, which may appear likely to never end.

    I bet Gwyneth didn’t give up any of her other luxuries during those 4 days? People in poverty have a lot less besides not enough food. Their struggles are so much bigger than what they eat. And even if Gwyneth went without a single morsel of food for a week, she would be praised and envied for her svelte figure.
    People would do better to use their resources, gifts & blessings to help others, quietly, without publicity and fuss.

    I too am new to blogging and it’s a scary daunting thing asking for feedback or not getting any. Hope you keep doing what you enjoy doing and have every success xxx

  3. Joann says:

    Good perspective. To walk a mile in someone’s shoes is a saying we give lip service to but your post really broke down the error of this belief.
    I was referred to your post on the Michael Hyatt site.

  4. Heather Heuman says:

    I think that although the situation didn’t get to be completed or that it even created some negative publicity for Gwyneth her intentions were good and she appears to have attempted to do something positive.
    Thanks Michael Hyatt for sending me this way.

  5. April Janzen says:

    Hmmm….I don’t think it’s a bad thing to give such a challenge a try. It can open our eyes up, even for just a moment, to what life is like for those who are not so fortunate. And with the extra money we aren’t spending one can give that money to help those who are in need. I applaud her for trying and for being honest in her failure. I would probably fail miserably as well which is why I haven’t even tried. Let’s not be too hard on someone trying to empathize with the poor.

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