A Mile in My Shoes – an art project on empathy

At the annual KIKK Festival that took place in Namur last weekend, I entered a large shoe box that was standing outside the festival entrance. “A Mile in My Shoes” was written across the side. Not much to see inside except for the large shelf at the back of the room filled with shoe boxes. A warm welcome from a young man who asked for my shoe size.
I asked him,

“What’s this art project about?”

“You put on the shoes of someone and listen to their story.” he replied with a warm smile.

“Cool”

Then he repeated,
“So, what’s your shoe size?”


Seconds later he handed me a shoe box. I opened it to find a pair of old used men’s shoes and a headphone connected to a mini iPod. I sat down on what appeared to be a bench made out of cardboard and tried on the shoes. They fit perfectly. I popped my shoes into the box and handed it back to the young man. He smiled and said,

“Enjoy”

I stood up and stepped outside.
I was now standing outside in the warm sun listening to the voice of an elderly man. Yes, I was wearing his shoes.

The voice and shoes belonged to a 73 year-old man named Peter Butler from the UK. He shared his experience with delirium. Definition: “An acute mental disturbance characterized by confused thinking and disrupted attention usually accompanied by disordered speech and hallucinations.

Or in Peter’s words,

… it’s an infection of bacteria that gets into the brain, and it alters the brain working. It’s as simple as that.

I knew nothing about delirium. Peter, with his calm voice, walked me through his experiences. From violent outbursts, seeing spiders and rats coming out of the wall, to stuck in bed not feeling his muscles. It’s like a daytime nightmare and no one can see what you see. Even medical professionals have difficulty recognising it.

The fact that I was wearing his shoes made this such a tangible experience. I was on a whole new level of attentiveness.

He said, delirium, in any form or level, is a very frightening experience. The ones that suffer the most are your friends and relatives nearest to you. They see you differently and you are not in control of your actions, what you are seeing, nor in control of the words coming out of your mouth.

One of his worst experiences was when he verbally attacked his son.
In his voice, I could sense the guilt he felt.

 

I found it so moving to listen to Peter’s story. A visceral experience to say the least.

What I enjoyed the most about this art project:

  • It was outdoors – I love outdoor art projects. It allows you to wander about the surrounding areas. It makes the experience more accessible.
  • Listening without interrupting him – I was locked into his story. No distractions.
  • Attentive to his every word – like I said, I was on a whole new level of attentive listening.
  • Connection – This was not your regular podcast. I was wearing the man’s shoes. Whether or not they were actually his didn’t matter. It made the story very real.  When I was done listening to Peter, I wanted to hug him for sharing his story.

Thanks to Peter, I now have a better understanding and respect for people experiencing delirium. Since I wasn’t able to ask Peter any questions, I was able to find more info about the subject and even a transcription of the audio file.

I don’t plan ahead too far, because I never know what’s around the corner…. I’m happy to be able to live today.

It was such an interesting and immersive experience that I wish for everyone to visit this art installation by the Empathy Museum directed by award winning artist Clare Patey.

Thanks for reading my blog post. 

Have you visited this art installation or come across any other creative ways of promoting empathy?
Please share your thoughts. 

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