When You’re Told to Pull up Your Bootstraps but You’re Not Wearing Any Shoes


It’s not often our expertise but the exploration of our own suffering that enables us to be of real assistance.That’s what allows us to touch another human being’s pain with compassion instead of with fear and pity.We have to invite it all. It is an intimacy with our own inner life that enables us to form an empathetic bridge to the other person.” (Ostaseski, 2008)

The words stung. “You need to just pull up your boot straps and get on with life. I mean how long is it going to take you to be okay living here?”

A hard slap across my tender face would have been more welcome. We had moved from Egypt three years before, a difficult move by any standards.  I thought I was doing well. I had landed a job; my children were doing well in school, and top of their classes. They were acting in school plays and had friends and confidantes. We were involved in the school and the community.

In a matter of seconds, none of that was enough.

I needed to do more. Be more.

But I couldn’t. There was nothing more I could do. I was at the end of my resources. We lived in a small town that was 10 minutes from the ocean. Our house was a magical 165 year old Victorian home with over 26 windows and enough space for 5 kids to sprawl. On the surface we were living the American dream.

The problem was that we never wanted to live the American dream. We never thought we would buy a house. We never thought my husband would work at Harvard University. We never anticipated the quintessential small town Main street address.

And so every day was learning to live with what was, not what I wanted. The script had been re-written by a Master Author, yet I as one of the characters was not playing my part very well. My resources had failed.

I had no shoes, let alone boots. I couldn’t pull up anything. But I was told to pull up my bootstraps and get on with life.

There are times when being told to pull up your bootstraps helps – but usually you have to be wearing boots for that to work. There are other times when you wish people would look beyond the surface, would see your lack of shoes, and walk beside you – holding your hand, warning you of the rocks and pebbles that are inevitably a part of the journey.

There are times when instead of telling people to pull up their bootstraps we need to buy them shoes; other times when we need to take off our own shoes and walk with them barefoot.

It’s called empathy. 

Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams puts it this way: ”

“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say That must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see….”

I’ve thought about the above encounter many times. It no longer hurts to think about it, instead it is from a past that is covered with grace. But I don’t forget it – because hurts in the past when healed can inform our future, can change the way we relate with others. How often have I looked at others and, instead of entering their pain and asking them their story, expected them to just try harder? How often have I acted as though they needed to pull up their bootstraps and get on with life instead of looking to see if they had any boots?

Every day there are people around us with a story, a life narrative. How we choose to meet them can make all the difference. Will we enter with empathy or with judgment?

*The Empathy Exams” published February 2014 in The Believer

Readers – purchase Between Worlds before December 15 and all proceeds go toward refugees in Turkey! Read reviews below!

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Picture Source: http://pixabay.com/en/rubber-boots-shoe-old-broken-509967/

19 thoughts on “When You’re Told to Pull up Your Bootstraps but You’re Not Wearing Any Shoes

  1. I remember, now with amusement, when a friend said, “You still playing the India card!?” It was devastating at the time….but when I burst into tears that friend was quick to slip on empathy. She became one of my very best and dearest cultural informants after that. She really took the time to explain the USA and some of its complexities and nuances. I love you Miss Jill! (Jill…you should elaborate on your side of this story…. !)


  2. We have all struggled since moving back to Pittsburgh seven months ago, but right now I feel it’s my 16-year-old daughter that is the one that is barefoot. I can see in her eyes that she has very little hope that things will get better. Can you recommend any resources for her? Perhaps I should read The Empathy Exams?


    1. Thank you so much for sharing. My heart hurts for all of you – but especially your daughter. So is she a reader? the most helpful things I have found are from Paul Tournier on Place. He wrote a little book called A Place for You that I read at 18 years old and have never forgotten. It is so old but really good. Unrooted Childhoods is short essays by some famous and other not so famous authors. Here is a podcast that a friend of mine has done that may be helpful. http://tayorockson.com/podcast/ I am featured on number 5 I think. I would love to send her Between Worlds as a present – feel free to email me communicatingblog@gmail.com if you think she would like it.
      The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti http://amzn.com/1931930147 some have recommended but it gets mixed reviews. The Empathy Exams is a wonderful book -fascinating really and I think you would love it – I don’t know if it would be that practical for this situation. Have you read Among Worlds by Pollock and VanReken?


      1. What a great list of resources! I have copied this comment and emailed it to myself just in case we need it along the road.

        Reading this here post, Marilyn, sent achy fear down my spine. I hope I have the courage to face well-meaning people who have yet to be schooled in empathy. Maybe I need to remember to glance down at their unclad feet so I don’t slip into judgmental defensiveness. I fear that I will scare people off if I become cranky and mean… I really hope the truth you share here comes rushing to my brain in those moments. God help us all…


      2. Thanks so much for the specific recommendations. I found a Paul Tournier book titled A Place for You. Is that the one? Also appreciate the offer of your book—I already have one set aside for her!


    2. Hi Christie

      If you are interested in resources for your daughter, how about novels or children’s books on TCK or immigration themes?
      Three of the best that I know are:
      “The witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare — set in Puritan New England: a girl who’s grown up in Barbados has to go and live with her very sober relatives; it does not go smoothly!
      “Grandfather’s Journey” by Allen Say — wonderful picture book about his grandfather who emigrated from Japan to America, but was always torn between the two places.
      “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan — wordless graphic novel about migration issues.

      Tournier’s book “A place for you” is one of my desert-island-must-have books. I first read it about 15 years ago, having finally settled for good in England, after a lifetime spent living around the world (seven countries total). It helped me understand my desperate need to have a ‘place’ to put down roots, and why it was okay to say ‘enough is enough’ of the international lifestyle. He observes that Abraham could leave Ur at 75 because he had a place to leave. Those of us who grew up between places (TCKs) don’t have that stable base to start from, and continually moving on only exacerbates the rootlessness. However, I’m not sure I’d recommend your daughter read the book (it’s translated from French so a bit heavy going), but it might help you to be more aware of the issues. I also loved his concept of the two movements, and ‘in between’ places (when you’ve let go of one place, but not quite latched on to the other) — this helped me understand why furlough/home leave was so stressful, as I was in between multiple places.

      (In various past lives I was a librarian, so always ‘pushing’ books!)


    1. So I was putting the kids to bed and didn’t wait to write what I was actually thinking about this . . . defining empathy is important for me, because though I usually feel someone else’s pain (nowadays, didn’t always), I am often in a quandary over how to respond. When Brene defined sympathy as something that breeds disconnection and empathy something that breeds connection, that was very helpful for me.

      And I’m sorry about your conversation. Those kinds of comments stick with us for a long time. I wonder what made that person think you weren’t adjusting “well enough” when you, though unhappy about your situation, were quite pleased with the progress you had made. And let me just say, that was mighty good progress you had made!

      Love you Marilyn!


      1. Loved the short that you linked to…in fact I had to press stop several times so I could take notes on the 4 characteristics of empathy. Peter Kreeft talks about how when terrible tragedies happen people don’t need our words, they need our presence. And that is what I think it’s about. Thanks for your words on the comment. To this day I don’t know what I projected that made her say that. There was so much going on in my inner world that I wasn’t sharing. And in truth – it was only 3 years into my 7 years of culture shock …. yikes. Thank you for your words of empathy and compassion. So much love to you this day.


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