Oct 21 2008
At first I didn’t think much about other people.
I was doing very well for myself. It was not until my early twenties that I really failed at something I wanted. I had no friends who weren’t much like myself — white, well educated, happy childhoods, culturally Western.
A woman named Crazy Kim disabused me. She runs a bar in the seaside town of Nha Trang, but that’s now. One night she told me about her student days in communist Vietnam, the way she used to get out of mine clearing duties by pretending to be sick. On the day before she was to graduate, she set out to sea in a small wooden boat. She was lucky; she got picked up by a passing freighter bound for Holland. Twenty years later, she had to apply for a Vietnamese passport to return home, so thoroughly had her birth country forgotten her. Now she uses the revenue from the bar to fight pedophile tourists who come for the young girls.
She was the first person I’d ever met with real problems — not problems like getting a job or wishing someone would call you back, but problems like surviving on a boat at sea and starting a new life in a new country. She’d overcome all of this, and talked about it like it was normal. It was normal to her, the only life she’d ever known, and after all that she’d decided that what she really wanted to do with her days was help other people out. I felt like she was living more life than me. My heart went out to her. After a few more shots, my heart went out to everyone in her little bar, tourists, locals, all of them. I leaned into my neighbor and told him that I loved everyone I’d ever met.
The epiphany outlasted the hangover. Why shouldn’t everyone in the world be happy? Why shouldn’t I extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone I meet? Hell, we all want the same things, right? I began to see that peaceful people before me had scratched “LOVE” into wooden surfaces everywhere. The guest-house guest-books were filled with “all we have in this world is each other” and “live life today!” and “We are One!”
It’s the basic realization of compassion.
What astounds me is that I’ve heard it over and over again from people of all cultures. A stoic Ethiopian on a bus told me about his principle that all humanity is united. A passionate journalist from Dakar has expounded to me that we cannot afford to see ourselves as different. Over tea on the streets of St. Louis, a young mullah explained to me patiently that all are equal in the eyes of Allah. And of course I’ve been on the other stool so many times now, with a drunken Thai or Nigerian or Russian all but drooling on me in their eagerness to explain that they’ve realized something amazing: we are all merely human!
And you can look into their eyes, the eyes the person across the table from you, across that gulf of experience and education and culture and attitude that you just can’t bridge, and you know you’re supposed to feel a deep human connection somehow.
Then the bastard shatters it by asking you for money to beat his wife. Or something.
Because I don’t really know what to say to that Lebanese guy who talks about his African servants as “idiots.” I was astounded at how often the Hong Kong Chinese wouldn’t take my order if I couldn’t speak Cantonese, and more than one Moroccan man once told me to “go back to your hell!” For every beautiful soul I met along my way, there was an asshole who wanted nothing more from me than whatever he could get.
The stereotypes are what killed me most. I wanted to keep an open mind; I was enlightened and I knew that the terrible things I’d heard were the rantings of bigots; they couldn’t possibly have any truth to them. So it was with some dismay that I began to see that Germans really are uptight, that Indian merchants would lie to my face if it made them a buck, that Africans would heap scorn on Africans just one shade darker then them. (Also, the Chinese really are atrocious drivers.) These aren’t universal principles, of course. Like all stereotypes they are no substitute for looking at the person in front of you. Yet I found myself with opinions–
And you discover you’re wrong about what’s important. My mother always told me that everyone in the world wants the same things: family, food, shelter. No. It’s not true. The things that drive us differ. Depending where you live, the most important thing in your world might be allegiance to your father, or Allah, or ridding the province of Pakistanis, or making enough money to buy an air conditioner. We are not all one.
The first step is always to ask, why can’t we all just get along? This the is the moment where you take to heart the idea that everyone is deserving, at least in principle, of your love, compassion, and good will. You suddenly see that this is what peace and cooperation are, that civilization itself is built upon extending humanity and generosity to others. I am with the sages and the hippies in shouting from the rooftops that this is a Good Thing. But it’s not enough, because not everyone wants what you want. In fact, a great many people aren’t even remotely similar to you, and in ways that will probably upset you.
There has to be a form of compassion that embraces the world as it is, not as we wish it was.