Archive for May, 2013

“Do we only give because we want an ego boost from knowing we ‘did good’, or only when we get tangible proof that our gift will be put to ‘proper’ use? The beauty of unconditional kindness is that we may NEVER know.”

– Chelle Thompson, Editor of Inspiration Line

 This happened a long time ago, in the first year of my living in Australia but it is an incident that has marked me forever.

 Like most migrants, I too had come a long way with fast food within just a few months of entering the country.  Having readily fallen under the thrall of the golden arches, I had already made the transition from “I don’t eat beef” to “but I eat cheeseburgers” by the end of my first year.  So one evening, after a long day at work, I had ordered a couple of burgers at McDonalds and had sat down to eat when I caught a whiff of something very unpleasant.

Unwashed body odour, stale and unpleasant wafted near me and to my discomfort I found the owner taking his seat right beside my table.  A homeless man, seemingly old and covered in layers of grime eyed the extra burger on my plate.  I saw him lean towards me and even before he opened his mouth, I simply handed over the burger and made haste to leave the place.  There was nothing altruistic or commendable about my action; my charity was compelled – out of duress, to extricate myself out of an unpleasant situation.

A few minutes later at the bus-stop outside, I was accosted by the same stench and to my dismay I found the man near me.  Despite my blatant attempts to ignore him, he held out something to me, pressed it into my unresponsive hands, mumbled something and disappeared.

This took place 15 years ago and yet I still remember the searing shame that scorched my cheeks for being singled out in the crowd.  I hesitated to look at the nearby passengers, appalled by the amusing glances I imagined I was getting for being accosted by a smelly, dirty and perhaps senile stranger.

I was young, immature trying to settle in a new country without much support and making my own rules at survival.  I had to yet become comfortable in my skin.  I usually tried to blend into the background and avoided looking people into their eyes for fear of unwanted provocation.  Moreover my primary concern was self-preservation subsequently resulting in disassociating myself from anything or anyone who might discredit me in my attempts to belong.   My reaction was perhaps justified but yet, I knew undeniably that I had failed my moral compass test that day.

Later when I looked at what the old man had thrust into my hands, I noticed it was a sticker, a strikingly clean and grime-free picture of a blue dolphin.  Perhaps one of his very few possessions, but given to someone who would least appreciate the significance of the gift.  The essence of giving was totally lost on me on that day.

Over the years, I have been reminded of the incident with various emotions gnawing at me- shame, guilt and even remorse at my pettiness, my concern over outwardly appearances and my rather shabby treatment of the old man.

However, life being the greatest teacher, had on several instances, taught me what it was to be in the old man’s shoes and experiencing  the pain of having one’s gift of giving wasted on unresponsive ,disdainful  and even undeserving recipients. It was on such occasions that I fully understood the significance of the old man’s rather paltry token of gratitude. Of the two who had practiced giving that day, I understood who had truly given.

We all practice giving, almost every day, within our own circle of friends and family.  Most of us delude ourselves that it is selfless and unconditional giving, especially what we practice within the boundaries of our chosen relationships and attributed roles.  But in reality we are pandering to our own self-interests; a conditioned response in the arena of human relationships.

However the kind of giving that leaves me humbled and amazed is at the opposite side of the spectrum – the giving practiced by volunteers all around the world.  It requires a different kind of strength to give to totally unrelated people, to give making oneself vulnerable, to give in the face of rebuffs, rejections and denials and above all to give without any expectations of material benefits or accolades.

A week ago I was at the Volunteering Western Victoria recognition awards and I couldn’t help but be moved by the diligent and tireless efforts of giving practiced by groups and individuals within the region.   It is mind-staggering to see how much the world relies on volunteering and on such noble and benevolent acts of giving.  Having said that, not all volunteering efforts are visible or even recognised; at times some of their labours may end up being unappreciated and unacknowledged as the old man’s gift but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to give.  There is no doubt a cost that most volunteers are forced to pay in the face of such demanding selfless and truly altruistic behaviour, but fortunately for the society and community at large, that does not seem to dissuade or discourage them at the least.

It is that absolute essence of giving that the old man taught me to respect and revere albeit belatedly; life’s lessons do come from the oddest teachers at times!!


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“The world doesn’t just revolve around you. There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit.” Barack Obama

A friend once told me that empathy, unless acted upon is as useful as a chocolate teapot.  She was 15 when she said this; I was 15 when I heard this; perhaps I did not realise the wisdom of those words then, but now with all the experiences that life has handed me down, I believe it is the mother-lode of all sayings.

There is no doubt that empathy is one of the highest forms of virtue; a beautiful emotion to behold; perhaps one of the inherent components of humanity.  Some would say it is what keeps the world afloat.  Then comes the million dollar question – shouldn’t the world be a better place with this key virtue in existence?

So here I am struggling to put on paper the conflicted emotions that run through me while I keep debating within myself how useful is this emotion in actuality.  Perhaps in my case, it is an imagined case of survivor-guilt but then deep down I know it is not guilt, but more of shame when I take stock of what is happening around us and our reactions to it.

The world around us is plagued by some kind of disaster or the other – if not natural, then man-made.  Just in the short period of a few weeks, we have seen almost everything; deranged bombings, building collapses, civil war casualties, plant explosions and nature’s fury.

Lives have been snuffed out in the blink of an eye.  One minute these people were living, breathing like you and me, perhaps even living their lives to the fullest and yet today they are nothing but memories that only matter to their nearest and dearest ones.  To the rest of the world, they are mere statistics of rather unfortunate events; a mere blip on the radar of the living.  So much for all the New Age writing about butterfly flapping its wings!!  In reality, Boston bombing – a blip on the radar; earthquake in China – another blip on the radar and the blips sadly continue.

Of course, we mourned, but to what use?  With the existence of this rather abundant virtue called empathy, we steeled ourselves to watch the graphic images, made commiserative clicking sounds, tweeted incessantly, paid homage to the dead and then continued on our own plodding journey of life.  Some amongst us, perhaps the most generous and the noblest would have gone the extra mile, organised fundraisers or rushed to the affected zones, volunteering in any kind of capacity possible.

But the majority of us, turning a blind eye to the blessings in our lives, would have returned to our own insular worlds driven by egocentric emotions that would out beat empathy any given day.

I am no exception. While someone out there was losing the battle between living and dying and having their choices stripped away cruelly, I was getting worked up that I wasn’t been given options with my minor medical procedure.  While someone’s life expectancy was drastically shortened, I was kicking a furore over the duration of my swimming class. Long story short, while people were dying, I was taking my life for granted, frittering away my emotions on rather petty issues.

 How easy it is to lock ourselves in our own little dramas and blow our superficial and insignificant issues into Herculean proportions?  This is what my whinge is about and perhaps my guilt too.

We may be empathetic to what is happening around us, but we do not seem to learn any valuable lessons from it.  Our empathy seems to be short-lived and once the moment is past, we seem to have very selective memory about it and maybe even resurrect our emotional barriers again.

Why can’t we possibly learn from the happenings around us; perhaps use our instinctive emotion not just to feel and forget but reach out a little from our blinkered worlds.  Perhaps all we need is a healthy dose of perspective which might do the trick and teach us to value the people and the blessings in our lives, maybe even treasure our lives and others’ as we see the ones around us, perhaps more deserving than us, losing theirs, for no fault of theirs!!

I will refrain from regurgitating well-intentioned but overused clichés about the brevity or fragility of our lives; however the next time we are tempted to throw a tantrum, or work ourselves into a rage over something petty, or wallow in self-pity, or refuse to be magnanimous and forgive others, it is our cue to don on our empathy hat and see the world without our blinkers and barriers.

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