With a Simple Smile
I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about my connections with others. Though, what this really means, because I often have trouble not turning my reflections on relationships into some sort of massive psychoanalysis on human beings and/or an existential crisis, is that I’ve been in a little bit of a mind spiral. Questions circle such as: What fuels human connection? How do certain connections create vulnerability and closeness, and how do I become content with this changing over time? How have my relationships informed my sense of self and how have I learned to be empathetic? Who do I hold empathy for and why? And, is empathy, on a scale larger than individual connection or localized community even possible?
Obviously, these questions don’t have any clear answers, if any answer at all, but, it is their swimming around in my head that allows me to begin to parse out who I am, why I am here, and why I choose to be engaged with public health.
I want to start by talking about empathy-honestly, an endeavor. This has been on my mind for quite a while, and to try to sort through these thoughts as I sit on this sleeper bus, after a couple of relatively sleepless nights (including a mini bedbug saga) is ambitious. But, I’m tackling it, because: a. it’s probably about time, and b. I think that it is important how this topic has arisen for me in these past couple of weeks.
I often wonder why people, including me, are seemingly really capable of holding compassion for our closest people, our loved ones, and people we can relate to, while we so easily other-ize those we don’t hold this perceived connection with.
What is this disconnect? Where does it come from? Why are we so quick to judge someone else for our differences, so quick to believe we hold a situation's true meaning, without taking the time to understand, to really listen. When I apply this to myself, I have witnessed what I believe to be, at times, my extreme lack of empathy. Why is it that I am able to pass someone on the street, pretty much every day, someone begging for money, someone for whom a mere 70 rupees (a dollar) would be so much more meaningful than it is to me: the child motioning that they’re hungry, the lady insistently asking me to buy her a sweater, the older woman, with physical disability and a few single rupee coins sitting in front of her, all with some greater need, and my first instinct is to ignore. Avert eyes, prevent engagement, that’s the drill. And, if I happen to be confronted and engaged with, in choosing not to help, I am only that much more culpable in my apathy. There are endless excuses but they all feel so irrational and backwards, because no matter the reason, I have so much privilege, including in many ways I don’t think about at home, and yet I choose most every time not to extend help.
At the same time, I feel really grateful for what I think is my sense of empathy, even the times when this has come at a cost to myself, but also in instances that are for people whom I’d do pretty much anything for. I am also grateful for what have been some unbelievably rewarding instances of connection. Times when I will catch someone’s eye as I walk by, sharing a smile, and for the briefest moment, us making each other smile is all that matters, a small 'I see you and you see me' for nothing more than we are in that moment.
I have also experienced this when interacting with pretty much every Parikrma child, whether it be walking into a class and being immediately offered a seat and then shortly after a paper and pencil to complete the class assignment; and being able to enter a space where teachers hold so much compassion for their students and treat them all with so much kindness and faith in their ability to succeed. It is so easy to forget how hard these students work each day to stay in school despite the odds, despite most returning every night to food and water insecurities, 10x10ft homes, and alcoholic fathers. And yet, they come to school each day calling “Akka” and “Anna” (older sister or brother) and uninhibitedly hugging us because they’ve learnt school is a safe and trustworthy place.
I ultimately may not have any answers to my questions, but I am here because I want to understand more; I want to listen and learn. I want to expand my ability to withhold judgement and I want to make more connections, creating relationships with people who are at the same time both endlessly different, as well as similar to me. Because I think this may be what it is all about; growing as individuals through creating human connections, learning how to hold more love for more people, and sharing empathy with one another, even if it is just taking the time to extend a simple smile.
So, just in case I need a launching point for the next spiral, I ask: How is empathy taught and learned? How can it be used to more universally combat our ever increasingly polarized and individualistic world? And how might this change start with myself?