Being brought up in a strict, culturally oriented Indian family, I was the wild child who broke all the rules. However, there was one rule I never dared to challenge because I myself, had understood it so clearly. I would even enforce it on others when they came into my home: Leave your shoes at the door.
The reason for this rule was both practical and symbolic. The practical reason is obvious, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. The amount of bacteria we pick up from the outside world from our shoes is shockingly high. Charles Garba, a University of Arizona microbiologist, conducted a study that showed an average of 421,000 units of bacteria sampled from 2 weeks of outside wear, included fecal matter, E. Coli and other strains which caused pneumonia and upper respiratory illnesses.
The symbolic reason, although understood intellectually, took me years to fully grasp. It doesn’t just stop at the door, but the concept of removal of shoes goes deeper into our everyday lives.
Mahatama Gandhi, Indian lawyer and political ethicist once said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” This is the concept behind what I was taught as a child. The house is sacred. It is where we eat, live, sleep and pray. As we live by the ethics and integrity of the philosophy we follow, let’s create a home, which represents it. Anything or anyone’s words that steers us away from those values must be left at the door. Although this was driven by religion in my home, Gandhi’s concept is what left the imprint in my mind.
So why is it so easy to take our shoes off when we walk into the door, but harder to remove the emotional and mental pathogens that steer us away from being at peace with ourselves? Why is it acceptable to ask a friend to leave their shoes outside, but so difficult when they bring drama, gossip or fear into our hearts? And now I ask, as we move so much of our communication online through video chats, meetings and emails, are the screens between us enough to keep the nosey neighbors and judgy judgersons out of our homes?
The lines of what we allow for in our private lives begins to blur with what we allow others to see in our public personas, and we need to start coming to terms with the discrepancies of these double lives we lead.
For example, one of the most common struggles I hear is no longer being able to make excuses for not attending a meeting or speaking to someone on the phone. We cannot hide behind the “I’m so busy” or “I have other plans” reason anymore. We need to learn to say no with clarity and honesty. It may not be what another person wants to hear, but it is what we need to do in order to keep our house clean.
The root cause of this dilemma is that we haven’t learned how to set up boundaries or parameters for ourselves, let alone how to tell others to do the same. If we don’t take our shoes off at the door, how is it that we can ask others to?
Learning to ask ourselves what is acceptable or not in our own physical, emotional and mental home will dictate the culture we set for all future interactions. I am always in awe of those I meet who garner respect so quickly when people meet them. Without even knowing the person, individuals want to share with them their deepest thoughts or make them their best friend. The secret of these people is that they know very clearly whom they would welcome into their homes, and it is with clarity of their speech and actions they show what they would bring into another person’s home.
Most of the time, we don’t even know what kind of boundary to place. When we are used to functioning in relationships that don’t allow for that level of personal space, we get confused as to what are our own values versus someone else’s.
Families are a great example of this concept. Having been brought up in a culture where “your business was everyone else’s business,” it was hard for me to find my own individual voice and path. Once I did, I was criticized for every mistake I made thereafter. I had to learn to be strong and stand by my ideals. I had to learn not to be afraid to ask someone to leave it at the door. And I had to put aside my fear that there may be some people who cannot respect my boundaries, and they would inevitably leave me. I had to learn not to sacrifice my values for another’s.
Clinical Psychologist Brene Brown said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”
Now, as we have been spending more time inside and seeing the reflections of who we are on the walls of our home, what a wonderful opportunity this is to decide whether or not we want to leave our shoes or our principles at the door.
Amita Nathwani is a practitioner and teacher of Ayurvedic Medicine at Surya Health and Wellness.. She is an adjunct faculty member with the Dr. Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and has a private practice in Tucson, Arizona and Durango, Colorado. She is also a Tucson Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.