“Last night, I dreamt about poverty. A little boy lived in the attic of our hotel and he would come play with me when I wandered up that way. All I wanted to do was buy him some shoes. All I wanted to do was buy anyone some shoes.”
I shared this story with my classmates in Bangalore, a confessional regarding the influx of guilt I’ve had to tackle throughout the month I’ve spent in India. The guilt comes with a realization on the lack of empathy I tend to feel in my regular life, and a frustration at not understanding how to deal with it when it overcomes me.
I was worried, initially, that during my time in India I would become desensitized to poverty and the terrible things that come with it. It seems so much simpler to ignore beggars and cripples in the street, to look back inside the bus when we pass a makeshift slum on the side of a creek. Guilt makes me uncomfortable, so I tend to avoid it. Just thinking about my guilt makes me feel guilty, and so I compensate with emotional barriers that I construct in my head between us and them, me and you, Jessica and everyone else.
One moment early on in our trip pushed me to face this guilt. It wasn’t a large moment - Dalit village visits and up-front and in-your-face encounters with poverty and disease only seemed to strengthen the barrier during the early stages of our trip, and I found myself more pleasantly amused by these encounters than in emotional turmoil regarding their complexity. And yet, it was only after I spent some time at a community college for domestically abused youth, after I had wandered the streets of Chennai and seen the begging mothers and babies desperate for anything I could offer, after I had sat in a small community temple eating enormous coconuts while the rest of the village watched and waited for their own small portion that I finally had my emotional barriers tested.
The moment in question happened the evening after our visit to the Dalit community. After a late departure and long ride through the South Indian countryside (lots of green and swampy rice fields, small roadside stands, and cattle), our group arrived back in Pondicherry to our hotel, Hotel Athihi, a beautiful luxurious place compared to Henkala complete within high-end rooms and warm showers and elaborate buffets and rooftop pool, which we immediately utilized upon our return. Swimming in the pool - even sitting on the pool deck and having our evening class - was such a conflicting experience. There I sat, next to the beautiful infinity pool and looked out over the city to the ocean far beyond, and I realized that I was hesitant to look down at the actual city that surrounded us because, though Pondicherry appears leagues beyond Chennai in terms of poverty, it is obvious that life in this hotel is not the norm, that wealth is very relative, and that luxury is nonexistent for many people directly adjacent to this wealth that I was experiencing.
Guilt permeated that experience, tainting the absolute joy that we would have otherwise felt in such a situation. And yet - I was happy that I finally felt guilty. It's a badge of pride I felt I could wear, indicating that I was aware and that my privilege and good fortune was worthy of appreciation and is certainly not the norm.
In that moment, I kept returning to a short lecture Dr. Miriam had given us at Madras Christian College in Chennai after we had completed and reflected upon our social work internship site visits. She asked us all after our presentations to describe our emotions after our site visits, and we ended up having a long discussion about guilt and the potential for guilt to be channeled into positive work ethic, a sentiment I wholeheartedly appreciated because I too was beginning to find it difficult to cope with - to block out, in typical Jessica fashion - the hard things I was seeing. The truth was, however, that those hardships that I ignored out of the corner of my eye were indeed someone else's reality. So when Dr. Miriam reminded me that guilt was okay, I made a promise to myself to open my eyes more. If I cannot give money or food or even time, let me at least witness and know the truth so that I may act to change it.
I’m currently on a bus, making my way to Chicago as I write this. I’ve begun to recognize that the barriers that I put up to protect myself, to prevent me from feeling guilt and pain that comes with opening my eyes, are actually hurting me in the long run. Reality is a frightening construct, but I still don’t want to miss out on understanding it and embracing it and working within it, instead of fighting against it.
One of the hardest things to deal with in India was watching the Indian elite at places like Express Avenue Mall shop without a care in the world despite the abject poverty that lingered outside their door. I would find myself frustrated with their naivete, only to step back and realize that, in my own natural environment, I tend to do the same thing. As I look around me on this bus, I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life - college students trying to get by, cheap businessmen that don’t want to dish out an extra fifty dollars for a plane ticket, and, especially, those that I can’t quite place into a distinctive group.
There is a young mother in front of me - underdressed for the weather, cradling a little boy in her arms, all her possessions confined to a shoddy backpack being kicked on the ground. The little boy is not wearing any shoes. I cannot let myself pull my eyes away, can not let myself excuse the moment as just a coincidence and instead am making myself recognize that, even if this one individual is not herself a victim of poverty, of domestic violence, of disease, of female oppression, of any and all the things I witnessed on Indian soil, she nevertheless is a reminder that atrocities and inhumanities are not limited to the third world, and that regardless of where I go, regardless of what I encounter and what dreams I pursue, only a conscious understanding of this reality is going to enable me to appreciate it fully and change my small pocket of the world in the way I hope to ultimately do.
So I will look. I will look out the window and I will look at the individuals I pass on the street and I vow to see, as much as possible.