‘Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action.’ (Max Carver)
I had a long conversation with a Kurdish-Iranian man recently about his experience as a refugee in the UK and the ongoing wait for news that his wife will be allowed to join him here. With a warm smile of anticipated relief, he shared his hopes of building a new life in this country where he and his wife can finally feel safe and free. Yet then he touched his heart with his hand and his face shifted to a pained expression. He shared his sadness that he can never feel truly happy and at peace, knowing the oppression that his family, friends and neighbours are still living under in his home country.
I was moved by his empathy and, at the same time, impressed by his stance that under such difficult and protracted life circumstances, he had not become so focused on his own situation that he had lost sight of others. It is, after all, a human risk that, when faced with challenges such as high anxiety and stress, our survival instinct can take over and turn us in on ourselves, absorbing us with our own needs and interests – a bit like when the body reacts to an external shock or threat by diverting its resources inwards to protect its vital organs. It’s a form of defensive flight to save ourselves first.
How do you hold onto empathy...to love...when natural instinct may push or pull you to withdraw?
‘If you can remove the hazard, do it. If you can’t do that, do what you can to minimise the impact of the hazard. If you can’t do that, prepare for recovery in the aftermath.’ (Bill Crooks)
That was a proud moment. I stepped into the lift in a Phnom Penh hotel and there, blazoned on the wall, was a poster with a stark warning, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ It was a campaign against the child sex tourism trade, led by international Christian NGO World Vision and the Cambodian police. I had just arrived there on assignment with World Vision and, seeing its logo displayed alongside this message, it gave fresh inspiration and passion to my own work.
Later that evening, I was taken by World Vision activists into a dark city alleyway to meet with some street children. The workers brought lanterns, food, drink and first aid kits to meet the children’s immediate needs before sitting on the ground to chat with them. I was amazed by the kids’ bright spirits, laughing playfully as they spoke with us. The activists opened picture books and talked the children through how to avoid the dangers of sexual exploitation.
It was sobering at the end to watch the children drift off back into the mist and darkness, still smiling and waving at us as they went. I wondered what their lives must be like, eking out an existence by scavenging and begging, and I felt deeply affected by this encounter. I noticed my instinctive desire to rescue these children who were clearly so poor and vulnerable. I was struck, by contrast, by the activists’ approach to developing the children’s own resilience.
On asking about this later, the activists explained to me that the scale of the challenge is so great that it dwarfs the physical resources they have to meet it. They had chosen a strategy that enabled them to reach the greatest numbers of children – recognising the hard realities of these kids’ worlds and enabling, where possible, their safety and wellbeing within those contexts. It was protection by preparation and mitigation, by standing alongside in the midst.
This agonisingly difficult choice enabled the activists to focus their more intensive support and care on children who were the most vulnerable among the vulnerable; for instance, those who were sick or dying or living with severe disabilities or mental health issues. They partnered with the children, local communities, civil society organisations and central government agencies to catalyse and sustain an effective response. Love in action. We can be hope.
For the first time in human history, toilet paper is worth more than real money.
It’s hard not to look on with bemusement and alarm at the wild antics of desperate people, fighting in wealthy supermarket halls to grasp hold of the last packs of loo roll. My Filipino friends are utterly astonished. Whilst poor people there are struggling to hold onto their income, their ability to feed their families – and with good reasons too, here we are gripped by a selfish fear of…inconvenience.
The new pandemic has its scary dimensions, but they are nothing compared to those created by sheer irrationality – whipped up into a frenzy by irresponsible, scare-mongering media, fueling the flames of terror. At times like this, we need to look outwards, not barricade ourselves inwards, to see how best we can support those who are poor and vulnerable; locally, and in the wider world.
An antidote to the disease, that risks taking so much, is a yet greater and deeper humanity – to help ourselves and each other by keeping things in perspective; to see people in need and take practical, caring action in response; to pray for faith, hope and love when afraid or tempted to retreat, grab or lash out. Ask: ‘When you look back, what kind of person do you want to have been?’ Then be it…now.
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