Every time I travel, some kind of annoyance begins to build up. It is almost always directed at rude men, who push past me in the security line, in the bus to the airplane, in the aisle to the seat. “Forget chivalry,” I mutter to myself, “these men do not even display the basic courtesy of allowing someone in front of them to go first; they must beat her to it.” I curse them in my heart, but I never, EVER, look them in the eye. All the lurid stories of my workdays at my tall office tower with six elevators in the most populated commercial district of Delhi come to mind. Once, 15 people got into a lift with a capacity of 13. The alarm went off. A few female voices floated to me standing outside, “Please get off, somebody.” No one budged. Finally, five women came out, unwilling to be squeezed in with 10 men, who then went on up, womanless and no doubt proud of having stood their ground.
Then another old incident comes awake, of walking in through the metal detectors and having three or four large men jostling into the few inches in front of me — to do what? Save 10 seconds? — and I could not help but admire two younger, spunkier women who completely avoided the queue with a ‘Fuck this’, slipped past the detector and landed up straight at the bag check lady, while I still stood there, waiting for all the men to be done.
Those memories clawed at me when, in a crowded shuttle bus at the airport, none of the men stopped to let me exit my seat until one did — and he was over 70 years old. I insisted he go first, and he did, and a young man behind him quickly went on as well, just in case I had the wrong idea that I could (finally) leave.
Like acidic bubbles, the annoyance burned my chest from within, my anger against my own species threatened to eat me up inside.
Thankfully for me, every time I travel, a great silence also builds up within me. Cut away temporarily from the noise and schedule of my daily life, my heart zooms in to its own eternal home like a compass falling in line with north. In this stillness, I become aware of my thoughts, and I wonder at them.
So today, after a great bout of venting my frustration about my countrymen to my colleagues, I was able to also notice my own irritation with clinical objectivity. ‘Why,’ I thought to myself, ‘must this bother me so? What lesson lies in this for me? Why all this negative emotion? What needs fixing in my soul?’
Pat in reply, a couple of hours later (God is getting better at this, good job, muah), I got this post by Seth Godin:
Empathy doesn’t involve feeling sorry for someone. It is our honest answer to the question, “why did they do what they did?”
The useful answer is rarely, “because they’re stupid.” Or even, “because they’re evil.” In fact, most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions. So if you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from.
Dismissing actions we don’t admire merely because we don’t care enough to have empathy is rarely going to help us make the change we seek. It doesn’t help us understand, and it creates a gulf that drives us apart.
I start with what they know (they know that livelihood is everything for them; without their daily bread, their worlds will crash; nothing must come in the way); what they believe (they believe that to make a living, one has to fight several battles to just get to the starting line); and where they come from (a place of lack, shortage, insecurity, fear and repression).
Yes, I feel slightly closer to understanding them. Yes, I believe I will eventually forgive them for their inconsideration and myself for my lack of empathy. Yes, I will be the change that I seek.
Maybe, just maybe, I will finally look them in the eye and wish the men in my elevator a happy Independence Day.