Human beings are wired for community. We need connection and communication—there is no doubt about that. Yet, there are barriers that stand between us: language, race, class, and values are among the things that make our connections with people different from us weaker or nonexistent altogether. Even when we come from the same place, speak the same language, and have had a similar upbringing, it can be challenging to communicate effectively and understand one another. It is even harder to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.
Now imagine that you have arrived in a place where you do not speak the language or have the same upbringing as the people around you; that you find yourself in a place that contains significantly different daily circumstances than those with which you were raised. What makes you feel connected to people within this context? What are the things that allow for a bridging of worlds to take place?
In industrialized countries, we have developed coping mechanisms to suppress the emotional aspects of what it means to be human. We dumb ourselves down with reality shows, exhaust ourselves by working constantly, and worry incessantly about our outward appearance. It seems there is no place for emotions. Everyone has to be “happy” all the time and to make happiness easier to attain we avoid reading about tragic events, discussing climate change, or thinking about how our everyday actions affect other people—people who are often invisible to us but upon which our lifestyles greatly depend.
Sometimes, small bits of humanity emerge when we see someone suffering in front of us, particularly a child. Empathy kicks in, we feel guilty for all we have, we want to “do something” for this child. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with trying to alleviate someone else’s pain or disadvantage. If, in fact, we had more of an awareness and desire to act, the world would be a less hostile place. The problem, however, lies in how we go about delivering a solution and even thinking about the problem in the first place. The issue lies in not thinking critically, in not analyzing our own actions and complicity in the creation of such situations of disadvantage. It is easy to pull a dollar out of your wallet, hand it out to the kid, and feel proud—feel like you are doing “something.” But, are we really thinking about what we are doing? Are we looking at the bigger picture? Probably not. A child who can get money from tourists as a cute little boy, will not be able to do the same once he grows up. And, more importantly, we are not asking why he is standing on the street with his hand out in the first place. Or why, he will likely become an adult who does not have an education. I find myself asking, what kinds of opportunities will be available for this boy?
I don’t understand how we can simply step into a space that we know so little about and try to “fix things.” It seems like we are choosing the easy solutions, the band-aid solutions that don’t address the question of how these things come to exist. Why can’t we analyze our options? Why can’t we be reflexive?
I am also concerned about judgment. It is easy for us to condemn parents who have exposed their children to child labor or parents that sell their children into human trafficking. The reality is that we will never know what it means to sacrifice one of your children to save the others. And that is what makes understanding harder, that is what makes collaboration harder. We need to look deeper.
Yet, are we judging ourselves for our own decisions? It is hard to be apathetic when you see a kid suffering two feet away from you. But why is it so easy to be apathetic when we contribute to suffering with our own everyday choices? We buy clothing from brands that are produced in sweatshops, from companies that damage the ecosystem, from corporations that displace people from their own land. We support wars, exploitation, and deforestation. And then we come to tell them what to do? We come to “fix” them.
Empathy is valuable, but in order for it to be useful, it has to go hand in hand with deep and critical reflection. It is daunting to know how hard doing this work is and how many mistakes even well intended people make. This, though, will not stop us. As a group of students we have studied the history and politics of this country for a whole semester, we are learning the language, we are collaborating with our local Khmer partners, and we are learning from them. Above all, we are consistently reflecting on our own actions. This aspect of being here seems to be key. We are empathic, yes, but we are also thinking critically, being analytical, demonstrating humility, and are open and eager to learn. That, I believe is a powerful mix.