Brookside Center for Counseling and Hypnotherapy


If The Foot Hurts, The Shoe Fits: Old Habits Die Hard

by Maurice Kouguell, Ph.D., BCETS. 

(Dedicated to my brother Alex)

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, an Arabic speaking country which was influenced then by the French and American cultures, into a family of Russian Jewish emigrants.

I was Lebanese, but not an Arab. I received my elementary education at the French Protestant College for Girls. The first day of kindergarten, I came home and shared my secret with my mother. I was going to marry Mademoiselle Andre, my teacher. 

The next day I realized that I could never trust my mother, for as she ushered me to my class, she told Mademoiselle Andre of my intention.

By the time I was a second grader, I was brainwashed by my peers into thinking that my Jewish family had killed Jesus. Since all of them pointed to me as responsible, I had little choice but to believe them and did not want to share with my parents my dark secret that I knew they were killers. I had to protect myself and in a moment of utter frustration I shouted: “I will get my uncle after you. He is a policeman and he will arrest you." They stopped; but now I lived in fear of any one finding out that my uncle was a concert cellist. (Years later, his son became a policeman.)

At the completion of the equivalent of 6th grade, all the boys had to transfer to another school. I then attended the French Section at the American University of Beirut. Once again, I was very self-conscious when asked from which school I had transferred. You can’t imagine all the comments about a 12 year old male who had graduated from a girls’ school (of course, there had been other boys at that school as well).

My parents were Russian, but I was not. The family was Jewish; I was never sure what it meant except on one holiday we did not eat and on another we ate too much. I was able, I thought, to come to terms with my religious struggles when I was accepted at a prestigious Jesuit University.

My father was a concert pianist and so was my mother. When asked what my father did for a living, I felt humiliated when I explained he played music. The next question would be, "Doesn’t he work?"  Luckily for me he was internationally known (though not in my neighborhood) and he was also the founder and director of the Institute of Music at the American University of Beirut. All that was well and good but...why did his first name have to be Arkadie? If he only knew how poorly equipped I was at defending his name  which certainly was not of Arabic, French or English origin and Russia, in those days, was so far away. The search for my identity continued.

At times I felt a misfit, but I always consoled myself by admitting I was different. I lived in Paris where I received a Licence de Concert as a Concert Violist from the Ecole Normale de Musique. (The Viola is a string instrument known as Alto in France, Bratsche in Germany.) Anyway, what is this instrument with an identity problem?  People think you play it as a cello others as a double bass. Actually, you play it well or you don’t. Of course everyone knows in France that Ecole Normale trains pedagogues. How do I state on my biography that before I became a psychologist I graduated from a Normale school? 

I met my future wife in a class at the City College of New York. The class was Personal Adjustment to Everyday Life. We married. I was Jewish by category. She had a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. We went to the same dinners. Our daughter read books on catechism which she hid under her bed. We took her to services, churches, temples; she finally became a screenwriter.

My own parents left Russia in 1921 with practically nothing except for my older brother Alex. In those days you could not take anything with you, anything of value that is. How lucky for me that because the communists had no value for my brother they gave me the biggest gift one could ever expect. I loved  him so much. I loved him unconditionally and so much so that when he handed me his used shoes, even at a time when my foot outgrew his, my blind allegiance to him overshadowed any discomfort. How could I have told him his shoes hurt me? Wouldn’t he possibly have confused the discomfort generated by his shoes with a rejection of his love?

I wore his shoes! He was my older brother, my idol. He is the one I walked towards when I took my first steps. I trusted him with learning how to ride a bicycle and he taught me how to swim.  He could do no wrong and why would he? He was my older brother. So when I got his shoes, maybe I wanted to fit  into them. Pain and discomfort were experienced daily. 

It became almost intolerable. Wednesday was when we had soccer practice and of course, I also wore my brother's soccer shoes. (I dreaded Wednesdays for 55 years--even when I became a senior citizen and was privileged to receive discounts on the things I did not need) Wearing his shoes was painfully pleasurable. I learned how to curl my toes and achieve optimal comfort. 

Soccer did not allow me the necessary time for my footwork strategies to circumvent pain, but I believe that I resolved the situation (maybe with some help from my subconscious). During a varsity game when our school played a visiting team known for its ruthlessness (if not brutality), I played half-back. At some point, there were several players coming towards me. I  recall having an  hallucination of confusing them with enemy tanks coming toward me. Realizing the helplessness of my fate, motivated by fear and an adrenaline rush I did what had to be done! I did the only thing I could for my survival: I ran towards my goal and instead of defending it, I gave my best shot and scored. I was immediately thrown off the team. At the next gym class, my teacher who was also our coach, lined up the team. He asked me to take a step forward and in the grand tradition of French protocol, I was ordered to surrender my blue and white uniform. The ceremony had all the glamour of a military court martial.

The only dry eye was mine and one day, I may have been 17 or 18 and proud of my independence, I ventured into a shoe store in Paris to buy a pair of shoes.

But first let me tell you about the fancy yellow squared toed shoes my sister had ordered from a Montgomery Ward catalogue. The shoes arrived. It was love at first sight.They looked like the shoes worn by Gulliver as illustrated in my favorite book Gulliver’s Travels

They were yellow. Bright yellow. My sister did not like them. My brother wore them for a few days and asked me if I wanted them. How could I refuse him? How could I not wear Gulliver’s shoes? They pinched and gave me permission to develop new blisters. I walked in them proudly and in an altered state of consciousness. Luck was on my side when they started to tear where the small toe ended and my bunions began...

I wore my father’s shoes as well, but only for a very short period of time. His foot was small and by the time I was nine my feet outgrew his. In brief, at some time or another I wore my father’s shoes, my brother’s shoes and my sister’s shoes. I never wore my mother’s shoes, but  her shoes had an extraordinary power over me. Whenever I was sick as a child and she had to leave me, she always left her shoes next to my bed and reassured me that as long as her shoes were there, she was with me. I believed  her. She was my mother so how could she be wrong?

Shoes had definitely a very special place in our family. Did I mention yet that when my father returned from a concert tour in Israel, after he distributed all our  presents, he also showed us what he brought back for himself. A pair of shoes -  one shoe was brown and the other black.  My mother screeched with surprise. He said that the salesman convinced him it was a matching pair. So he kept them. With a twinkle in his eye he stated that some day he hoped to meet the person wearing the corresponding set.

When  the shoe salesman refused to sell me the size of shoe I chose because they were too tight in his opinion, I was angry, distraught and at a complete loss. I did finally purchase my first comfortable pair of shoes and you have no idea how uncomfortable comfort can be.

During basic training the blisters on my feet had much happiness can one have?

I believe there is a reason for everything. My living in such discomfort for so many years taught me a very special lesson: when you are in pain you may not wish to give it up because you may not know how it would feel to live without it.  Maybe all heels do have a soul after all.

Feet, legs, back, all those are parts of the anatomy related to locomotion. With bad feet and a painful back you don’t get too far because getting places requires mobility; it also requires taking risks.

But is it necessary to be always out of step?


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