From the window of the bus I see a woman walking alongside the road bent under a bundle of sticks, her head lowered and her shoes split and cracked. A lifetime of sun and hard work lines her face and for a split second it pops into my head: “I could never do that.”
I think of the billion-plus people who still live without electricity, plumbing, or safe and secure housing and with a pang my first thought is still this – “I could never live like that.”
I know what I mean by this, and it comes from admiration – “They are strong,” I want to say, but what I am actually saying is “They are fundamentally different from me.”
Here is the truth: some people are not born more capable of withstanding injustices. A person born in the slums is not less hungry, a person carving their living out of a mountain is not less exhausted at the end of the day. A woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo is just as emotionally and physically devastated after a brutal rape. A mother in San Pedro Sula, Honduras is just as torn apart when her son is shot in the streets as my mother would be.
Things are not less heart-wrenching because they are common. Things are not easier to manage because they are statistically likely. I think this is what we forget – that as humans we feel pain and sorrow, anxiety and loneliness, fear and hopelessness regardless of our nationality or socioeconomic state.
The oppressed and impoverished in this world are not superhuman, nor are they gifted with a superhuman capacity to deal with hunger or disappointment.
Truer thoughts cut closer to our own position as observers, the advantages that place me on the bus and the woman on the roadside:
“It must be difficult to do that.”
“I am not accustomed to doing that.”
“Because of the privileges I was born with, I will never have to do that.”
This is what I think. If I had to do the impossible, to work three jobs just to make it as a single mother, to endure thirty lashes as bonded slave, or to walk three hundred miles to get medicine for my baby, I would do it, because I would have to do it.
I have lived a soft and sheltered life. I can carry less weight, both physically and metaphorically, than those who have spent their whole lives tested. One gets better at bearing weariness, I imagine, with practice.
But that is not what this idea is about. It’s easy to think about the world in terms of “haves” and “have-nots,” or worse, in terms of those who “can” bear the burdens of oppression and those who “can’t”, when that distinction is actually meaningless.
When I see the woman walking alongside the road, really see her, a truer thought comes to my mind. “I never want to do that,” I think, then, “She probably does not want to do that either.”
This thought is the beginning of empathy, the beginning of activism, and the nagging pull of true responsibility.
Thanks to Gary Haugen’s book Locust Effect for planting the seeds of these thoughts.