Britta Gustafson: Birkenstocks or heels, take your pick to walk my mile |

Britta Gustafson: Birkenstocks or heels, take your pick to walk my mile

Choosing to protect others is a behavior of compassion

I once found myself in a shoe store when the song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” began playing in the background. Suddenly my mundane activity felt so trivial as I was flooded with a sense of loss: The song had played many years ago at my best friend’s funeral while her childhood photos were projected above the pulpit.

I looked down at my well-worn Birkenstocks that I was considering replacing and a portrait we had taken of our feet with rows of blisters and bandages in a tribute to the 9 miles of passes that we had hiked on our Aspen Middle School eighth grade experiential education trip. A deluge of memories surged through me.

Others in the store carried on, unfazed by the music. And as I looked around at the rows of shoes and shoppers while the song softly played in the background, the admonition to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes came to mind.

Keeping my emotions at bay, I realized we all walk around with our past and can’t even begin to know what someone else is experiencing at any given moment. Our pain, our joy, our worries, fears and successes are all just beneath the surface. And at any given moment, something benign could stir up a host of emotions for the person sitting next to you.

That realization has helped me to feel far more compassionate when someone overreacts in my presence. I can’t begin to assume that I could know what their day, week, year or life has presented that could cause a particular reaction or response. If the key to compassion is empathy, isn’t compassion also about letting go of preconceived notions, quick assumptions and judgment?

Four-inch heels or Birkenstocks, ski boots or thigh-highs — I’m not sure which pair I’d recommend for you to walk my mile.

For over a year, and up until this point in the pandemic, my situation seemed to fall into a low-risk category for COVID-19. And I have felt little personal concern, making health-safety choices to protect those around me. Then, two days before my first COVID-19 vaccination was scheduled, I discovered that I was having a severe allergic reaction to a medication; it prohibits me from getting any vaccinations and leaves me more susceptible to higher risks from COVID-related complications. Oh, I was so close.

This moment has given me the chance to further consider why we should continue to view this pandemic from the perspective of compassion. We cannot size up the person next to us and assume to know their health story, who they might have to care for, or what their situation might be. No doubt everyone’s shoes are a little uncomfortable when we’ve walked the proverbial mile in them.

Fortunately, general risk levels — and the need for extreme caution — have plummeted in this valley, and for that I am so grateful.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that those I love most, who in some cases seemed to be at the highest risk, have stayed safe for over a year. They are now vaccinated and able to begin to resume some of the life experiences they had been cautiously avoiding. I also believe and appreciate that many of our behaviors and personal choices in this community have helped to protect those around us.

And now I find myself in a safety bubble, thanks to those who have both remained careful not to be spreaders, and to those who have helped by getting their own vaccinations to protect their fellow humans. By supporting the logical choice to be vaccinated, we are participating in the global inoculation efforts to help protect our human population from further spread and from worse variants out of goodwill toward those around us.

The personal choice to protect others is a behavior of compassion. If we can still wear those masks and behave with caution, we also are contributing to the well-being of those around us whose stories we cannot presume to know.

I wouldn’t presume to ask someone to do something just for me, but I will happily and compassionately be vaccinated as soon as I can for those around me. In the meantime, and after the vaccine, wearing a mask is still an act of love for those shoes in which we haven’t walked.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind. After all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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