May 4 2011

Life Without Shoes Stinks

a-day-without-shoes A few weeks ago, Compassion supported TOMS Shoes’ worldwide campaign called “A Day Without Shoes.”

The idea was for each of us to take off our shoes for 24 hours to learn what reality is like for the 300 million children around the world who don’t have a pair of shoes, to raise awareness for these young ones, and to encourage individuals to get involved — either by buying a pair of TOMS (for every pair you purchase, they give a pair of shoes to a child who doesn’t have any) or by providing shoes to a child directly.

How was my day without shoes?

I hated it.

You have no idea how badly I want to sugarcoat the experience. Not for you, but for me. I’m totally ashamed that I spent the day feeling so miserable. But miserable I was.

The day of the campaign brought a morning of intense rain, crazy wind, and tornado watches in northwest D.C. Inconvenient on a good day. But did I mention that I don’t have a car? And that it was cold? And that I was scheduled to go to a policy briefing with political and academic leaders?

I didn’t go.

Yes, that’s right. A hardcore professional with workaholic tendencies, I played hooky that morning. All because I didn’t want to walk in the rain and show up at a briefing in my suit and drenched, dirty feet. I thought it would make me look bad.

But it gets better. I managed to not leave my house until 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

What finally dragged me out the door? The rain had stopped and I desperately needed groceries. Stomachs are powerful influencers.

One other thing inspired me to go outside: people. Specifically, the people from all over the world who were manning up on a much grander scale than I was and posting stories of their experiences online.

  • One lady went through airport security and traveled from the west to east coast, barefoot the entire time.
  • One woman spoke of landing in her hometown in northern Canada and joyfully sprinting through the snow to make it home before her toes froze. (Joyfully was her word, not mine.)
  • College kids shared about being harassed by professors and security personnel for not wearing shoes, and some were even getting kicked out of their classrooms for “lack of hygiene” or being “unsanitary.”
  • A few people reported that they were denied access to grocery stories and other shops.

Everyone else seemed to be having the time of their life, so I decided I could make it half a mile to the grocery store.

Along the way, I realized something I should have remembered at the beginning of the day: I live in D.C. Most people are way too busy to notice that you might not be wearing shoes.

During the one-mile round-trip walk to the store and my time shopping inside, only one person noticed my feet — and this was a teenage girl who didn’t bother to ask me about it.

Maybe she was worried I would ask for money?

My initial fear of rejection and hypothermia out of the way, I grabbed my jacket and headed for the bus. I needed to trek across town for my small group that met that evening, and the metro stop I wanted to catch was two and a half miles away.

I waited for the bus for about 20 minutes. People definitely noticed my feet but no one said anything. I’m no germaphobe, but taking a public bus and a public metro rail in your bare feet will quickly change that. Where everyone else had walked that day was suddenly something I felt a need to speculate about in great detail.

I was annoyed that my feet were cold and wet from the rain. I was becoming increasingly paranoid that someone wouldn’t look where they were going and step on my feet. Mostly I was angry with myself for thinking that life without a car was a good idea, financial and urban-transit prudence aside.

I arrived across town in one piece, both feet still intact. Along the way I was a bit surprised to discover that escalators hurt your feet more than sticks and stones, and the mental trepidation of fearing that a 250-pound man will step on your foot is much worse than when it actually happens.

Armed with newfound faith in my ability to handle the streets with my feet a la carte, I picked my way around a winding sidewalk and across a large parking lot covered in gravel to the church where my group was meeting.

Ironically, the evening at church turned out to be the most difficult part of the day. Inside and warm, I was peppered with questions about why on earth I was walking around without shoes. As I energetically jumped into an explanation, I watched my friends’ faces take on that “We think you’re crazy but probably won’t say so out loud” expression.

I half expected, or maybe just hoped, that someone would offer me a ride home afterwards, but they all took one last look at my feet and  disappeared one at a time without saying anything more.

It was a sobering moment for me, wondering how my own church (which I love and know is filled with people who love Jesus and actively live that out in their love for others) would respond to someone who walked in the door with bare, dirty feet.

The end of the day found me walking two and a half miles home from the return metro stop. It was a nice night but, inconveniently, one on which half the bus drivers apparently didn’t show up for work.

Fortunately, by then I was coming to terms with what it means to walk barefoot through a big city and I was no longer trying to come up with excuses for why it would be wise of me to stop by a shoe store on the way home.

I can’t say that my day without shoes had much of an impact on anyone else.

It did, however, have a very significant impact on me.

Every single worry I had? I only had to deal with it for a day.

But on a daily basis, with no end in sight and no reason to believe their reality will ever change, how many people do you suppose stay inside and can’t go to work on days filled with rain or storms because they don’t have a pair of shoes?

How many kids are refused access to school or to a grocery store? How many kids end up with diseases that kill or seriously threaten their health, all because of a disease or fungus they picked up while navigating the streets in their bare feet?

One day before, I’d had this funny illusion that since I owned only about 12 pairs of shoes, I was living the simple life.

I am astounded by how much I take for granted. And I’m determined that life doesn’t have to be like this forever.

I am making a commitment to not buy another pair of shoes unless I also buy a pair for a child who doesn’t have any. Care to join me?

“The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. The opposite of poverty is enough.” –Wess Stafford

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  1. May 4, 2011
    at 5:32 am

    Thanks so much for sharing! We need to hear the down-to-earth, miserableness of things too, not just joyfully running through the snow. :) But your kind of experience helps us understand a) what it was like for you, and b) what it’s like for our kids–and the other kids in their communities who aren’t sponsored (and all the kids around the world like them).

  2. May 4, 2011
    at 9:03 am

    This is a great report – thank you for sharing. I love your commitment at the end and I’ll try to join you in this – not only for myself, but I’ll include my kids as well.

    I’ve just finished heading up a shoe drive for Soes for Kids, founded by 12 year old Isabel Jones. Both of her parents work for Compassion, so many of the shoes she receives go to kids where Compassion works. Check it out… http://www.shoesforkids.me

    I also wrote about it – http://compassionfamily.blogspot.com/2011/03/do-something-together.html
    and
    http://compassionfamily.blogspot.com/2011/04/our-walk.html

  3. May 4, 2011
    at 10:31 am

    Great message Tiffany! I was working on that day, and my work will not allow me to be shoeless, but I doubt I would have been brave enough to do what you did.

  4. May 4, 2011
    at 1:26 pm

    You had a rough day without shoes, but it might surprise you to know that many people in the U.S. and other developed areas of the world *prefer* to live barefoot. I founded The Primalfoot Alliance for “barefooters” all over the world to advocate for their natural right to go barefoot if they choose (read: not be kicked out of places because they don’t have shoes on) and encourage others to go barefoot.

    Going barefoot is actually very natural, healthy and comfortable once you get used to it. The pain that you experienced is what many people feel when they are used to wearing shoes nearly all day every day. Because they’re only used to feeling the inside of their shoes, anything different on the ground is overly stimulating. It’s not a bad thing — just foreign. Spend enough time doing it and it will get better. Your feet and the thousands of nerve endings in your soles will become more conditioned and the sensations will become pleasurable instead of uncomfortable.

    Just because society has evolved to a point where everyone believes we should all wear shoes doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for our feet. In fact, most shoes that people wear are worse for our feet than going barefoot! Shoes can alter our natural walking gait, exacerbate many various foot afflictions (like fungus, hammer toe, bunions and more) and create problems in our knees, hips and back.

    We recommend that you and your readers “Reconsider Barefoot” by visiting our Web site and reading up on the benefits of barefoot activity. You may find — if you give your feet a chance — that going barefoot in daily living is FAR more preferable.

    Best Wishes,
    “Barefoot” Michael Buttgen
    Founder and President,
    The Primalfoot Alliance

  5. Ariel
    May 4, 2011
    at 2:05 pm

    I will not be joining you in buying shoes for kids who do not have them and it is not just because I do not wear shoes. You were miserable because your feet lack strength due to a lifetime of wearing shoes. But that is not why I am not joining you. I am not joining you because feeding and educating kids is way more important that our cultural norm of shoe wear. I hope someday you will focus on the real needs of others.

    • May 5, 2011
      at 3:25 pm

      I think this was a bit harsh. If you have read any of Tiffany’s other posts, it is clear that she has a giving heart and DOES focus on the real needs of others.

      Did you know that some parasites in Africa can enter the skin of bare feet? Hookworm is just one example, but there are others as well. To those who have gotten sick or dies from being infected from a parasite that entered through their foot bed, I think they would argue that footwear *is* a real need.

      Tiffany, I applaud you for spreading the word! Well done!

    • Michael Patterson
      May 5, 2011
      at 4:59 pm

      I have no argument for those who choose to go shoeless. I understand how you could say, ‘just because you wear shoes, don’t assume that’s right for everyone.’ By the same token, it’s not right for most of us to go shoeless (in my job it would be illegal for me to go shoeless-plus it would be incredibly reckless). Here’s what I take exception to: “I hope someday you will focus on the real needs of others.” I have met Tifanny and she is one of the strongest advocates for the poor I have ever met. The anonymity of this forum makes it easy to be blunt. I’d venture to say that if you were sitting in the same room having a discussion with Tiffany about her recent trips to Northern Iraq or Yemen on behalf of the poor you might find she is quite focused on the needs of others.

    • May 5, 2011
      at 9:25 pm

      I agree with Michelle that your comment was a bit harsh. I would also add that Compassion is a holistic child development ministry which absolutely includes “feeding and educating kids”. This just happens to be one advocates experience with an experiment.

  6. May 4, 2011
    at 2:08 pm

    Life without shoes does not stink – It’s shoes, full of harmful bacteria, that stink!

    I am a Christian who has not worn shoes for a few years. I live near London UK. Escalators do not hurt feet that are not damaged or over-sensitive due to wearing shoes. I regularly use public transport and the London Underground without a second thought. I enjoy being able to feel the world around me. There is so much that “shoddies” do not know that they are missing. One day is not enough. You need 6..12 months to allow your feet to recover and to train your mind to understand what you are feeling. (Most things that you probably consider dangerous are no threat at all!) Then the scales will fall from your eyes.

    Giving shoes to children who do not need them is like giving them cigarettes. They will become dependent on them and they will damage their feet and posture, and deprive them of their God given sense of touch (like wearing gloves or dark glasses your entire life.) I am sure you mean well but are just misguided. Check out the Barefoot Book for some basics that will probably shock you!

    • May 5, 2011
      at 3:27 pm

      Andy, there are so many parasites that can enter through the feet and sicken and kill children around the world, especially in areas with polluted water.

      • May 6, 2011
        at 7:52 am

        You might also change your mind about that when it is cold (near or below freezing), your home doesn’t have heat and you must earn your living selling fruit in the street 12 hours a day. Hypothermia and frostbite are real threats for some of these people just for lack of shoes.

      • May 6, 2011
        at 8:07 am

        We are also talking about children living in extreme poverty and in extreme conditions…children who, perhaps, might spend a day scavenging in a dump, surrounded by sharp and dangerous objects.

    • May 6, 2011
      at 7:48 am

      Obviously not many hook worms or sand fleas in London. The underdeveloped countries have a vast array of parasites that are quite easily picked up by bare feat. Not to mention the streets tend not to be so clean, sometimes they even double as the sewer. Yes, shoeless is not so bad in a comparatively clean and parasite free environment. I only go shoeless around home and still have had three cases of sand fleas burrowing into my toe to lay eggs. So just because you don’t need shoes does not mean it is the best thing for everyone.

  7. Paul Alexander
    May 4, 2011
    at 2:16 pm

    Trying to live barefoot for the first time is very much like exercising vigorously after years of living an extremely sedintary life. It will be extremely unpleasant, very painful, and will take quite a bit of time to acclimate. Yet our bodies are configured to do so, as we have been shoeless for the vast majority of human history. Excessive time living barefoot will undoubtedly strengthen one’s feet and can clear up other isses (back pain, flat feet, etc.).

  8. Sam Maloney
    May 4, 2011
    at 2:29 pm

    Imagine you’d never been outdoors before. The sun is too hot, the breeze too cold, the noises are frightening, the smells strange and alien.

    Things a normal person would enjoy are overwhelming. Your body interprets as pain any experience to which it has not acclimated.

    You end up simultaneously freezing and sunburned with a killer headache and terrible stress because you had no idea how to contextualize the experience.

    That’s what you’ve just put your feet through. You were not born with shoes, and people lived without them for tens of millions of years. They are a useful tool when needed, but they can foster a preposterous degree of dependence if over used… and you’ve clearly over used them if you find normal stimulus so distressing.

    The solution is not to force others into shoes, but to loose your own more often.

  9. May 4, 2011
    at 2:49 pm

    I go barefoot year round and I absolutely love every minute of it. No shoes rock! I can understand a 3rd world country needing them for diseases and all, but our 1st world country is nothing like that, no shoes needed. I have always been the most comfortable with no shoes or anything at all on my feet, natural is way better than un natural!

    • May 6, 2011
      at 7:53 am

      Ever see those signs, “No shirt, no shoes, no service?” I guess you either break their rules or boycott their services.

  10. K-eM
    May 4, 2011
    at 4:17 pm

    I will confess that I only went without shoes for part of the day. I know how bad it can be and chose to initiate conversations about shoes rather than going without and hoping someone brought it up. I applaud you Tiffany for even going out for part of the day and I’m glad that it changed your perceptions.

    Having grown up in Africa (parents were missionaries) I am well aware of what happens to unprotected feet whether they were calloused from going shoeless or soft and vulnerable from always being in shoes.

    We lived in a village with a mission hospital which my Mom worked at as a nurse. I regularly hung out there, going on rounds with doctors, watching the physical therapist, helping make paper pill packets… Being there I didn’t just see diseases and babies. I saw ravaged feet. People who couldn’t afford shoes, who had never worn shoes, whose feet were badly damaged for one reason or another.

    There was a phrase the locals used. Jigger foot. It described someone who had gotten jigger bugs burrowed into their feet, which then laid eggs which hatched. The new bugs laid more eggs… You get the picture. And they itched ! The only way to get them out is to dig them out with a sharply pointed object like a pin. That hurts! I had one jigger and it cured me of going shoeless even in the house.

    So while many people have this romantic notion that going barefoot is cool or natural or okay if your feet are used to it, I know differently.

    Yes, it’s not so bad here in the U.S. most of the year. My grandmother used to go barefoot as late in the year as she could when growing up. But most of the people in the world who have no choice, live in extremely dangerous environments that most of us in the U.S. would avoid even with shoes on.

    Just a final thought. I remember watching a few people as they carefully repaired their shoes. Their shoes were so important to them (for protection) that they would repair them, themselves, over and over again. One man I watched had plastic shoes and he kept a little box of scraps and would melt them onto the broken part of his shoe with a hot piece of metal. The image of a frankenstein shoe is etched into my memory. If going without shoes when your feet are calloused and used to it is not a big deal, then why did he take so much care in repairing his one pair of shoes?

  11. May 4, 2011
    at 7:47 pm

    Great partnership. Had the privilege of meeting Isabel, the founder of Shoes for Kids, and her family last weekend in Portland. What an inspiring young social entrepreneur making a difference. Check her out at shoesforkids.me.

  12. May 5, 2011
    at 9:03 pm

    Going with or without shoes I think is secondary to the point being made. Raising awareness that there are people in the world who are less fortunate than us is important. We have so many things that we don’t need but which could be used by others.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  13. Joan Leardi
    May 9, 2011
    at 6:32 am

    I love going barefoot and take off my shoes whenever I can get away with it. I realize some of the barefoot advocates are probably upset with stores and restaurants and other establishments that make you wear shoes. Tiffany is not the person to take your anger out on. I know I would never consider walking barefoot in an area where there were parasites and other illnesses I could catch through my feet. Giving shoes or giving whatever to people who are poor and in need is a wonderful thing to do. Trying an exercise to identify with what those people are going through is very brave in my opinion. I am fairly sure people are not giving shoes to people who live in areas where they would not be needed. Obviously, the people who have experienced some of these poor areas first hand think there is a need for shoes. I would go with their opinion.

  14. […] a little late on commenting on this, but I’d like to highlight this first-person description of one woman’s “A Day without Shoes”. It felt to me like a compilation of nearly […]

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