If You Could Walk In My Slippers

Dear Ron,

I  heard someone say the other day, “If you could walk in my shoes, you would know what it feels like!” The person was talking about an operation she just had. I know what it means: If you were me, you would know how I feel after my operation.  Ron, can you tell me where this saying comes from?


Dear Candice,

I think you are referring to the maxim: “In order to know someone, you must first walk a mile in his shoes.”  This maxim is Chinese in origin and dates back to the Tang Dynasty.  The Emperor  Mu Tang  was a great lover of footwear. He would go nowhere without his shoes.  One day he was sauntering along a garden path  in a pair of satin slippers when he encountered a stranger who commented that he was walking too slowly, and did he think he would get anywhere at that pace. The man obviously was a stranger in town and didn’t know that Mu Tang was the emperor of the whole town and could walk just as fast as he cared to walk, having nothing much to do anyway except order the odd execution.

Mu Tang looked at the man with an air of bemusement and smiled at him. “Obviously you have no idea where I am going,” he said.  The man grew irate and countered that wherever Mu Tang was going he should walk there with purpose, otherwise he would never get there on time.  Whereupon Mu Tang reached down and pulled from his foot his new satin slipper, offering it to him to try on. The man was reluctant. He objected, pointing out that his foot was probably bigger than Mu Tang’s and that he didn’t want to  ruin his instep.

At that point, a donkey-runner came along and stopped. The donkey-runner knew the face of the Emperor, in fact he had a picture of that very face glued to his rice cabinet. He was stunned that he actually now found himself in the presence of the man.  Leaping off his donkey cart, he dove to the foot of Mu Tang, the foot whose slipper was still on. The man who was in conversation with Mu Tang was taken aback, his face nearly frozen in place when he realized he was speaking to someone who was obviously very important.  But Mu Tang just continued smiling. He happened to be in a good mood thanks to having done away with several of his enemies that morning.

The man’s mouth hung open, fearing the worst. He realized by now that he was in the presence of the Emperor. How could he have spoken to him in that way, he recriminated himself, trembling a little.  After shaking his other foot free of the donkey-runner, Mu Tang removed his other shoe and handed it to the man. “I want you to put on both of my slippers and walk around in them.” The man did what he was told. “Comfortable, eh?” said Mu Tang.

The man agreed.  “Now you may see why I was walking so slowly. I just love the feel of these slippers, I could wear them to bed.”  There is question whether Mu Tang gave the man his slippers, but that is probably not likely. He may have told him where he could get a pair just like his.

Whichever version you prefer is the right one. The “mile” part nobody is too sure of, but the meaning is clear enough: To understand someone’s actions you must first walk in his shoes.

I hope this cleared it up, Candice.

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