On India, mindfulness and the danger of becoming desensitized to poverty.
I love going to new countries and experiencing cultures for the first time. Not only do I enjoy immersing myself in a new atmosphere and meeting the people of the culture, but it gives me a unique opportunity to reflect on the world around me. Everything I see demands my attention, because it all strikes me as new. Features of life I would normally overlook back home seem to stand out in vivid color and affect me in unlikely ways.
Perhaps I enjoy experiencing new cultures because new cultures challenge my assumptions about the world. They bring me into contact with the real and force me to adapt my preconceived notions about the way things are to how they actually are. I’ve said before that when our assumptions about the world are shown to be incompatible with reality, we “re-story” our understanding of the world. International travel forces this upon me, which is why I strive to make it a regular part of my life.
Last month I traveled to India, where for 17 days I was able to experience a culture I had never encountered before. Up until that point, my understanding of India was distilled several times over as I was brought in contact with Indian expats living in America. In other words, the India I knew previously was, in some sense, diluted: it is what happens whenever a culture is removed from its place of origin. (There is something about the sense of place in forming culture. A culture, in some sense, cannot be divorced from its particular geographic history and still remain intact. Therefore, we most fully experience a culture by putting ourselves in its place of origin.)
Most people understand India as a “developing world” nation. In some ways India was very similar to what I had experienced before in my travels to Uganda and Tanzania, yet it possessed a culture of such striking depth and complexity that made it very different from what I had experienced in Africa. And sure enough, it brought me face-to-face with the many unacknowledged assumptions that I had formed about a culture I had never known.
Whether it’s the assumption that Indians tend to have more children than Westerners (they don’t; it depends on their socio-economic class), or that there is such a thing as one “Indian culture” (there isn’t; it’s a tapestry of mostly distinct cultures with different cuisine, clothing, and customs), or that the United States is the model pluralistic society (in some ways, India surpasses the US: they have a population (primarily made up of Hindus and Muslims) far more religious than America, yet just as peaceful), India pushed my view of the world closer to what actually is.
New experiences will always challenge – and sometimes confirm – our pre-existing assumptions, but they can also awaken us to characteristics about ourselves and our society that we have grown accustomed to not seeing.
One of the things Westerners (Americans, in particular) seem to be especially sensitized to when they travel to “developing world” countries is the striking poverty in which many of the people of those nations live. Sure, we are no strangers to poverty in the West, but in the West we have a poverty that seems more “contained”, and certainly less intense. We are taken aback when we travel abroad because we don’t see that kind of poverty and to that extent.
Our first reaction is to want to do something, because when we’re pulled out of our normal environment the world hits our senses in different ways. Unfamiliar sense experiences cause instinctual responses within us; we react to what we see before us, even before we have time to process it mentally.
And poverty is something that seems to strike humans with particular force, at least initially. We will either be repulsed by what we see and want to remove ourselves from it as quickly as possible, or we will be touched by a compassion we never knew we had. Our initial, gut reactions to poverty reveal a lot about ourselves, whether we care to take notice or not.
But the longer we’re exposed to poverty something insidious gradually begins to happen: we grow used to it, and are consequently less affected by it. Now this is to some extent a blessing; otherwise, we would never be able to carry on with our own lives. But if we’re not aware of the change taking place inside us, it won’t be long before we fail to see entirely the poverty that once affected us so strongly.
In other words, some degree of “hardening” needs to take place as we learn how to function amidst the poverty around us. But what so often happens is we harden ourselves too much, such that we’re no longer sensitized to it. The “hardening” process does more than just give us thicker skin, it callouses us. Cataracts form on our eyes and impairs our vision. We no longer see the poverty around us to the point of being affected by it.
I started thinking about this as I saw Indians walk by the poor and destitute around them with seeming indifference. I was taken aback, until I realized that we act no different in the West. We pass by the homeless in our cities without the least acknowledgment of their existence. In both countries, citizens have trained themselves, almost on a nonconscious level, not to be affected by the poverty around them. (Curiously, Americans seem more concerned with poverty they’ve never experienced before than with the poverty in their own cities, but that is for a later post.)
I don’t mean to confuse Indians’ (or Americans’, for that matter) seeming indifference with actual indifference. Indeed, we’re finite beings and can’t help every person we pass by. But I think it’s safe to say that the general disposition of a given person is one closer to indifference than to concern and compassion for the poor.
So how do we counter this general disposition towards indifference? We need to respect the power of our ability to harden ourselves to the world around us. We first need to acknowledge that it’s possible for us to do so, and then be attuned to how our actions contribute to either a “hardening” or a “softening” of our senses towards poverty. This requires a very conscious attention, which is not easy.
But the alternative is worse: if we fail to be mindful of our own actions, others more sensitized to poverty will pick up on our indifference and be just as alarmed as I was in India when I saw the (seeming) detachedness of people as they walked by the destitute. Whether or not we become similarly indifferent is a function of the attention we give our own actions each time we come in contact with the poor.
–Originally published on philanthro.pe