Perspective & Empathy

I had an interesting conversation with a woman that worked for an NGO in Antigua that made me think about a lot of issues that I’ll write a few posts on. If you have thoughts about any of this I would love to hear them feel free to shoot me an email or use the comments section.

How much are we affected by our environment? When I see homelessness, I feel for these people, but to be honest it sadly doesn’t move me like it used to when I first moved to the bay area. Being surrounded by so much homelessness has kind of desensitized me. However, seeing kids on the street begging or people who are clearly starving moves me quite a bit since that isn’t a site that I’m normally exposed to.

I realize how judgmental I’ve been towards certain communities for not caring for each other. For example, I’ve come back from a few trips from India bothered by the extreme dichotomy of the most amazing malls catered for the rich and the poor beggars sitting outside. However, I realize that when people from other cities or countries visit San Francisco they too must be bothered by the site of people sleeping outside, next to San Franciscans enjoying an outdoor brunch.

I think when people are over exposed to something that they don’t know how to respond to, the natural response is to become desensitized to it. If I were to get emotional over every homeless person I see I would be a wreck. However, I don’t believe this is an excuse for inaction. There is a level of awareness & compassion that needs to be cultivated to understand between right and wrong, which comes with a responsibility to work towards what is right.

Perhaps, it is even necessary to shield oneself from the emotional baggage that comes with some of these issues in order to work towards what is right. After reading “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” a book about the life in a slum, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by all the issues contributing to the cyclical nature of extreme poverty, I was left feeling hopeless. Rather than get caught up in the feeling of hopelessness, maybe it is necessary to disconnect and just do what you can to help no matter how futile others may think it maybe.

The person I spoke with remarked how she was surprised to see a slum tucked away behind a hill near Antigua. After only living in this area for a week, I think it would be ignorant and presumptuous for me to make any statements about her observation. That being said the location of the slum is out of site out of mind, which is something also happening in San Francisco.

A block from where I used to live in San Francisco there is a large public housing neighborhood. My first 2 years in the city when I commuted via bus, my bus stop was located in this neighborhood. Every morning I had to walk into the public housing and get on the bus that was full of a diverse group of people. At night I often heard police cars rushing up the hill into the public housing. Although at times I felt unsafe, being exposed to this daily forced me to think critically and explore issues around public housing, education, and socio-economics that I probably would never think about. I was constantly reminded of how grateful I should be for my circumstances and about the responsibilities I have to give back to my community.

There are now plans to relocate the public housing in this neighborhood to a remote area of the city that is shielded from the majority of residents in San Francisco. They’ll most likely replace the public housing with some expensive housing and apartments that will attract a group of people of a certain socio-economic background. In general, as San Francisco becomes more gentrified and housing prices rise the community is losing some of its diversity.

Although, there are a ton of reasons fueling this (and I haven’t taken the time to understand all of them), I think about what is lost as the city becomes increasingly gentrified. Diversity allows for people to feel empathy and gain perspective for the plight of others. Diversity and discomfort forces people to ask tough questions and spurs innovation. San Francisco is an amazing city and the tech community has created a culture that has really changed how I see the world. If it wasn’t for this city I don’t think I would have the confidence and belief that I can do and build anything I put my mind to. However, what is happening to the community of San Francisco seems to be the antithesis of the innovative, liberal, and progressive ideals that we pride ourselves on. As the population becomes increasingly homogenous how will that affect our world outlook? What we work on? Who we are? How we contribute?

Yesterday as I was trying to find a cafe to eat at in Antigua a little boy approached me with a jar of gum trying to sell me a piece for like 5 or 10 cents. I embarrassingly rejected his offer, and I’ve never seen someone seem so dejected and hopeless. He turned around walked to a nearby stoop and sat down looking like he was about to cry. I don’t know his story and my intent isn’t to romanticize it, all I know is that his presence yesterday forced me to ask questions like: Why isn’t he in school? Why is he selling gum on the streets? Where is his family? Although, I maybe naive all I know is that seeing him forced me to get out of my tourist head, even if only for a couple minutes, and think about the welfare of someone else.

What it seems like the world is lacking the most, based on current events, is a sense of empathy and perspective that can only come from exposing oneself to different people and ideas.

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4 thoughts on “Perspective & Empathy

  1. Here is one perspective:

    The universe is a self correcting system that is always balanced. What we perceive as inequality or injustice or suffering are fundamental properties of the system. The fact that you are thinking about being aware of the plight of others is by design. This is because there are others who aren’t thinking about the plight of others at this time. This is the self correction in action. At times when you were willfully or unknowingly ignorant of the plight of others, some other beings were aware of their plight and took action. So if you go with this perspective, it makes feeling guilty unnecessary. At this moment you are aware and perhaps taking action. In another moment you might not be aware but the system will appoint another agent to be aware of what is going on. This perspective poses raises questions and doubts about the limits of our knowledge and awareness and if free will really exists. If you take the view that there are hard limits to what we can know and be aware of and that free will is an illusion, then you can drop the burden of actions and thoughts from the past and future. You can just focus on thought and action right now and do so without strain or guilt. Of course, that is much much easier said than done.

    1. Interesting way to think about it. I do understand what you are saying and I guess I’m not grappling with the guilt as much as I am trying to understand how we tend to erect barriers (racially, economically, nationalistically) to separate ourselves from each other, and what impact that is having on the decisions we are making.

      Some of the decisions that we make, our governments make, our corporations make have far reaching effects across the world (supply chains, resources, labor etc.) and the farther we remove ourselves from each other the less empathy we may have in some of the decisions we make on a day to day basis.

      I see how at some point this maybe self correcting. Like if the problem becomes so large it will be something that we can’t ignore.

      Regardless, feel free to expand as I’m curious about this view point! Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Have you read Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha? Here Siddhartha’s life and lessons are narrated. Some of the life lessons are microcosms of the barriers you talk about. He erects barriers in his own life as he gives into his ego. Eventually he comes to realize that he had to go through that phase in order to attain understanding. He also he comes to understand (with much difficulty) that things are how they are at this point and that is okay because that is the way they are supposed to be. He also comes to understand that this the nature of the human being. And it is this very nature that makes suffering possible. With awareness you can mitigate suffering but you will never overcome the inherent nature of that being and thus never completely eliminate suffering. At least that is my interpretation. Similarly, I think this is the nature of society. All societies go through this ebb and flow. I agree that with concerted effort at awareness society can mitigate its suffering (and we have! ex: democracy, racial/sexual tolerance, etc), but being that its nature is what it is, it can never completely eliminate its own suffering. The group takes on the characteristics of its constituent. Again, I feel this wisdom has its own ebb and flow. Just like you slip in and out of awareness throughout the course of your day, this enlightenment/understanding/wisdom is lost and regained over the course history. I believe this is the natural rhythm of things. Whether the society you live in today is indifferent or highly aware is part of the grand design. Society naturally will fluctuate between these two states (and the continuum in between). I feel this eternal cycle is “programmed” into the system. I am not sure how good of a job I am doing at describing this but it all stems from the assumption/belief that we don’t truly have free will.

    1. No haven’t read it. I’ll add it to my reading list. What you are talking about though sounds very similar to what Krishnamurti talks about. Check this guy out, I think he might be up your alley. The reading is very dense but if you take the time I think it is fruitful. One of his many points is that suffering, wisdom, happiness, sorrow, fear are not outside of us. When we feel these emotions we try to scold ourselves to feel or not feel these emotions. His point is that there is not duality, the person scolding is the same as the scolded – therefore be with those emotions since that is how you transcend them, not by applying some methodology to overcome.

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