Empathy and compassion
We need to relook at the concept of giving and sharing for a better existence, says SAROJA SRINIVASAN
Empathy, the capacity to ‘see from another’s point of view’, is one quality that appears rare, and seems even more so in those in power. Compassion, the capacity to feel with the disadvantaged and less fortunate members of society, seems again less visible in those who are materially well-endowed. Surprisingly, these qualities seem much more discernible in the actions of the less fortunate members of our society. Perhaps when one equates happiness with material comforts and becomes dependent on it, one becomes reluctant to share it.
In everyday life we need to develop a capacity to see the other’s point of view. Society is made of individuals, yet we need to learn to live as a community for many everyday things. We are interdependent and need each other, however independent we may think we are. We need each other for more than providing material comfort. True happiness stems from seeing the smile on a needy face when one offers a helping hand. It seems to validate our very existence only when we truly alleviate another’s discomfort.
The division between people either globally or within any one country seems to be growing ever so wider. We spend hours eulogizing about developed and developing countries, yet the basic qualities of empathy and compassion appears less apparent, the more ‘developed’ we become!
Recently in my travels within India, many stories brought home to me the fact that ‘giving’ and sharing are much more spontaneous in those who may not be materially endowed. The story of a young man who has initiated a trust called “Shady centre” particularly caught my eye as I was leaving to return to Sydney. This man was unable to go through school for lack of electricity in his home and lack of support from his ‘drunken father’. He became disgruntled with life when unable to pass his exams, and decided to take his life. Upon seeing a number of homeless men and women in a village far away from his home, he joined them for a night which changed his life around. He vowed he would repay their kindness for stopping him from the path of self-destruction. They fed him and took care of him for those first few days after he left home. He decided then the best way to repay them would be by feeding and caring for as many as he could each day. He worked in many places and has managed to gather a host of well-wishers, many of whom are college students. He puts away 10% of his earnings for these small projects. He has a website and asks for help for schools where children need uniforms, and need to be given food. He calls it ‘food of love’ and volunteers cook and take the food to various locations. He has arranged with many wedding halls for excess food from their catering to be delivered to hostels for the aged and other locations.
This is but one story among several others. Yes, there are people who have empathy and compassion. For these people their sense of innate value does not depend on material things and so it becomes easy to share what little they have.
In a global sense, those economically and politically powerful and influential appear to be oblivious to the plight of millions who are affected directly or indirectly by the self centered decisions they make. Recent revelations in the press from many countries around the world are a testimony to the prevalence of the lack of empathy everywhere. In the name of democracy, unilateral decisions are taken without consideration of its intrusiveness. Exploitation of the poor, the weak, the uneducated and other minority groups is present in all societies. A very obvious example is the lack of transparency in political decision-making and laws that absolve those who make them!
It is in the absence of compassion and empathy that violence, hatred and bigotry germinate and grow. Those who have no sense of how others feel would have no clue as to how their decisions may be affecting others. They continue to act totally from a self-centered perspective. If each of us were to act in a similar way, what may befall the human race?
If each of us could only start to develop and implement a small amount of empathy, a little bit of compassion in our everyday life, the world would surely be a much better place.