Walking a mile in another's shoes

Going incognito is a fantasy that carries irresistible appeal. What parent, for example, hasn't longed to sit invisibly in a child's classroom or play the role of unseen guest at a teenage party? What employee hasn't dreamed of being a fly on the wall at a top-level corporate meeting? And what executive hasn't wished for a chance to observe workers and overhear conversations to find out what they really think?

For Jordan's King Abdullah II, fantasies like these have become a reality four times since he ascended the throne last year. Eager to find out how ordinary people in his kingdom live, he has donned a variety of disguises, from taxi driver to television reporter to old man.

Two weeks ago, trading royal garb for shabby clothes, the king headed to a government hospital in the city of Zarqa to learn about its services. For two hours he watched patients waiting in long lines to see doctors, many of whom had not even shown up for work. After listening to complaints, he concluded that the facility was poorly managed and unsatisfactory.

What deliciously unroyal behavior for a king, playing commoner-for-a-day! His father, King Hussein, began the tradition, periodically making his own forays in disguise.

Yet it is impossible to imagine politicians at the highest level in the United States undertaking similar experiments. Constantly flanked by aides and surrounded by reporters and photographers, they would have a hard time changing identities.

Still, King Abdullah's example is enough to spark the imagination, prompting a game of "What if..."

What if members of Congress were to walk in the footsteps of the working poor, shopping for groceries and trying to cook nutritious meals on the meager amount food stamps allow? Or what if they posed as welfare recipients, forced to navigate the labyrinth of bureaucracy as they search for a job, child care, and transportation to work?

And what if CEOs were to shadow the 50-somethings they had just downsized, who are now trying to find other jobs that will pay mortgages and cover college tuition payments for teenage offspring?

Perhaps the best-known American to go incognito is Jack Coleman. During his 10 years as president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Mr. Coleman, a former chairman of the board at the Federal Reserve Bank, spent sabbaticals in the 1980s living "somewhat in disguise," as he put it. He worked as a garbage collector and a street cleaner. He washed dishes at a restaurant in Boston and dug ditches in Atlanta. He mined marble in Wyoming and worked on construction at a sewage-disposal plant in New Jersey.

Coleman's incognito jobs helped to satisfy his desire "to walk in other people's shoes" and find "the dignity of all human beings." They also helped to counter what he described as the arrogance that often accompanies powerful positions. The loftier the title, the more insulated a titleholder becomes.

It was Coleman's stint as a homeless man in New York that affected him most profoundly and taught him the most, he said. It reinforced his Quaker conviction that "There is that of God in every person." His daily diary of the experience became a cover story in New York magazine.

Coleman stopped short of recommending his adventures to others. But his insight raises a question: If New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were to spend time among the homeless, walking in their worn-out shoes, shuttling between shelters and soup kitchens, would he be so quick to order them off the streets, as he has done this winter?

Not all fly-on-the-wall experiences happen voluntarily. When Dr. Vronique Vasseur began working in a large prison in Paris seven years ago, she was shocked by the appalling conditions. Now she has published a book, "Chief Doctor at La Sant Prison," detailing the indignities inmates must endure. Although she fears she may lose her job, she has said, "You cannot see the things I saw and not speak out."

As the gap between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged grows, threatening to become not just a gap but a chasm, incognito observers can offer a window on the world of those whose lives remain largely invisible.

No one knows where a disguised King Abdullah might turn up next. And who can say whether his ventures in the streets will have any effect on the lives of ordinary people. But his curiosity and apparent compassion are touching. In this election year in the US, when "compassionate" is becoming a buzzword, candidates could take the king's listening ear to heart. No focus group or finger-to-the-wind poll could tell a truer story.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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