Monday, January 21, 2008

EVEN EMPATHY

Every place is some place, and everyone is someone.

It's been interesting, living a long time in places where most of the people I encounter and work with on a daily basis believe very different things than I believe.

The other day I was at somebody's house, and a Christian prayer was said before dinner, thanking Jesus Christ for the heavenly bounty that was set before us. The conversation later turned to the fact that Barack Obama might not, in fact, be a true Christian, because he used to be a Muslim, and who knows if he still might still hold tight to some arcane doctrines from the Koran? And the Filipinos in the south, the Muslim ones, the ones causing all the terrorism -- they're not true Filipinos.

Another day, I bopped into work a little bit early, and one of the teachers was leading the other employees in a Bible study class before the school day began, lecturing about how good works were not enough, good deeds were insufficient, that the only way to get to Heaven was to accept the Gospel and invite Christ into your heart. Period. No exceptions.

I thought back to a few years ago, in Cambodia, where, at one place I worked, all the employees had to sit through a forty-five minute Buddhist cleansing ceremony, where local monks blessed the premises in a simple but lengthy ritual of incense and chanting. And there we were, dozens of employees from Canada and Japan, France and Korea, the Philippines and the Gambia, Italy and America, Sweden and Finland. Nary a Buddhist among us, I'd reckon.

Sometimes months, if not years, go by where I don't speak to a Canadian in person, where I don't commune with someone from a similar background as my own. And this is fine. This is as it should be: life on its own terms, you and the world, meeting and greeting and getting along the best way that you can.

Having lived in three different Asian countries, and having worked under Japanese, Cambodian, British, South African, Filipino, Korean and Gambian bosses, I've slowly come to learn that it takes very little to get along with people. Be kind. Be courteous. Listen to what they have to say. Smile. Nod. Thank them. If they state something that's quite different from what you believe, well, so be it. Maybe state your own opinion. Maybe not. Take it case by case, temperment by temperment. In either case, the day goes smoother when you simply seek to find the common human bonds among us, the reciprocity that allows us to smooth the wheels that move our fates.

So lost in our selves, I think, the isolated entities that shape the world around us. So certain of our own individual assessment of the world. So resolute.

Better, perhaps, to understand the human faults we all share, the misperceptions we live our lives under. (For who are we without our misperceptions? The world is a cruel and mean-spirited place, and without our beliefs, undoubtedly false, certainly translucent, we would be ill-equipped to deal with what the long, indifferent day has to offer.)

By dealing with those who have little in common with ourselves, a necessary paradox emerges: a unity of opposites.

With nothing much to link us, we instead search for the absolutes, however transitory and miniscule they may be. We gaze into the gaps between our words. Listen closely to the silences. What we find, if we delve deep enough, linger long enough, are fragments and shards of humor, and kindness, and sometimes even empathy.

1 comment:

Craig said...

One of the schools where I taught in Tonga served a feast for lunch every day. I had been asked to teach by the president of the church that ran the school. The school had a volunteer teacher from the Peace Corps who started the same day I did. The same day I began teaching there a special unit of the U.S. Army from Alaska also arrived. They built an additional wing for the school that increased classroom capacity by about 50%. Their project began on the first day of class and was completed the day the term ended. I was pulled out of class at least once a week to feast with the U.S. Army crew and the family from the church that provided that week's feast. The school's Tongan headmaster, whose classes I ran for the term, largely disappeared for most of the term so I had carte blanche to teach without interference or supervision. I resigned at the end of the term, partly because it hadn't occurred to me that the U.S. Army would be attending my classes. I could have continued teaching there if I had chosen to do so. The director of education for the church explained my departure at the end of the term as a planned inspection ordered by the church president to assess the needs and capabilities of the teachers and students.