The Search for Sophisticated Empathy

This is the second part of a two-part series on Anabel Bacon’s experiences in India with the Niswarth program this summer. I was in India to learn about poverty, so it struck me as somewhat ironic that one event on the Niswarth calendar was a party at the home of the Godrej family, one of the program’s main sponsors. For the first time in three weeks I got dressed up, put on makeup and took my hair out of the customary sloppy bun that I had worn for the duration of the trip. It was strange for me to see my classmates in similar attire, looking stiff and uncomfortable as we wandered through the crowds of chattering grown-ups, unsure of why we were really there. This scene was such a change from the environments we had grown accustomed to over our three weeks in India that making the adjustment between the two was jarring. Despite my initial discomfort, I was surprised to find that this was a world much more familiar to me. I had never before considered myself to be a “rich kid,” especially not by Andover standards, but as I stood in the Godrej’s lavish flat, I was embarrassed to realize that I was much more accustomed to posh get-togethers like that one than I was to the dirty city streets that I had been traversing for three weeks straight. And yet, I was embarrassed to feel safe at the party, ashamed to feel back on top of my game. More than anything, I was embarrassed to understand that this was the game I was used to playing. If I was going to India to be outside of my comfort zone, I wondered, then why did I find myself gravitating at practically every opportunity to expensive, air-conditioned shops, watching “The O.C.” on my laptop in the wee hours of morning, or ordering American food at every infrequent opportunity I was given? I felt ashamed of myself, like I wasn’t up to the challenge of acknowledging my own good fortune while still finding empathy for the people with whom I worked. I was painfully aware of my own privilege, how I took it for granted, and how I sought comfort in it when the going got rough. I wasn’t able to rely on anything but the impermanent luxuries of my station to get me through the unfamiliar. Perhaps it was this sensitivity to my own shortcomings that made me feel undeserving of other people’s praise. As we sat at the party, recapping our experiences for the guests we spoke with, I didn’t feel that we deserved the accolades that we were receiving from them, just as I didn’t feel we had done enough to earn the kind words we frequently received from our teachers, sponsors and NGO partners. Mostly, I think, because it seemed to me that I was getting much more out of the work I was doing than were the people I was supposed to be helping. How many times would I flip through the snapshots in my head of slumsfood stalls and shoeless kids, while I and my time spent there would be no more than a curiously out of place thread in the Indian tapestry to the folks who had made such a great impression on me? I wanted to help, but I feared that anything I did would fall unnoticed on top of a heap of similar efforts put forth by those who had come before me. I left Mumbai different than had I arrived, and yet I can’t help but feel that the feeling was not mutual. The city had seen my kind before. Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I want to be the change, but I feel sadly incapable of it when I barely feel that I myself have changed at all. I keep telling myself that I’ve emerged from my experiences on Niswarth as a different person, that I’ve undergone the life-changing transformations that some of my peers claim to have, but in the end I still feel like the Anabel I was, only a little wiser and a hell of a lot more confused. After India, I feel that I know more about the world and less about my place in it. As frustrating as that kind of emotional purgatory is, though, perhaps that’s as it should be at this point. I can hardly expect to go from uninformed to enlightened without experiencing some confusion in between. As I look back on my time in India, I’ve even come to think that maybe that confusion I’m feeling is itself the enlightenment. The problems facing India, and the challenges I had to square with personally are far too complex to merit a tidy answer. The only way to understand them is to become lost in their intricacies, and in the end, the only understanding you can reach is that there is no cut-and-dry solution. The answer is the question. Anabel Bacon is a four-year Senior and a Senior Commentary Associate from Andover, Mass..