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Walking in someone else’s shoes

Recently I happened to read the transcript of a speech given by John Furlong, Vanoc’s Chief Executive Officer, at the…

By Doerthe Keilholz , in Blogs Olympics 2010 , on February 24, 2008

Recently I happened to read the transcript of a speech given by John Furlong, Vanoc’s Chief Executive Officer, at the Vancouver Board of Trade.

At one point, Furlong tells the story of his father buying himself new shows, and passing his old and ugly ones on to his son John. John was anything but grateful. He hated the shoes because his fellow students laughed at him wearing boots “that were so big you could almost paddle from them.”

Furlong goes on telling that years later he asked his father why he did not spare his son from making such a humilating experience, and his father eventually answered: “You might be a far better person if you learned once in a while how to walk in someone else’s shoes. If we could all see the world as other people see it, everybody would be quite a bit better off. And we’d be all more respectful and look what could get done.”

Furlong’s father seemed to be a wise man. I am not sure that his son really got the point, though.

In his speech Furlong praises the teamwork of Vanoc and its business partners by saying that they managed to all wear each others shoes.

This comparison is flawed. Vanoc’s business partners and Vanoc members wearing each others shoes, that’s like swapping your designer fine leather boots with the shining dress shoes of your table neighbor.

Furlong goes on talking about Vanoc’s achievements, and about people’s experiences and their sacrifices for the Games but the only ones that turn up in his speech are the ones he is swapping shoes with, the upper class members: businessmen in Australia, employers of the organizing committee, the provinces’ premiers etc.

Furlong ignores an important aspect of his father’s “walking-in-someone-else’s-shoes”-parable. It is not only about wearing somebody else’s shoes but about wearing shoes that are different than the ones you wear, and not only different but less neat and comfortable. It’s about privileged people accepting their responsibility to take care for the poor and vulnerable parts of society.

A couple of days ago, I just happened to have a memorable conversation with my father too. He said that the higher a person climbs up the greasy pole, the less able this person is to acurate self perception and therfore to identify with its employees or in general with people that are less well off.

My father seems to be a wise man too or at least an acute observer.

In her novel Malina, Ingeborg Bachmann writes about the main character’s utopian dream of people having “golden eyes”. What is meant is a time when people with shining shoes will put on the old, dirty and falling apart sneakers of the less well-heeled persons in this world.

At least in the novel this dream never came true.