When experience doesn’t give rise to empathy

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Some day last month, I was taking the Picadilly line back home when I gave my seat to a pregnant woman who walked into my compartment. She asked me for the seat before I could offer it. So the first two seats on either side are reserved for either old people, pregnant women or people carrying little children. Some people automatically offer them to you even before you ask whereas sometimes people don’t. However, you can always ask people to get up if you want to claim your reservation. I carry Berry on the tube everyday and I usually don’t ask for the seat unless offered. Sometimes I don’t accept even when I am offered a seat.

Maybe it has something to do with my upbringing – having never been eligible for any sort of reservation, I have fundamentally been opposed to the concept of reservation. I think reservation makes us less human. It leaves very little room for character. I appreciate that someone came running to the train before me and was glad to get a seat and it is unfair for them to get up just because I walked into the compartment with a baby. Sometimes I am super hungry and tired and all I long for is someone to offer me a seat but something very innate in me stops me from demanding a seat. Having said this, I immensely appreciate the people who do offer me their seat, especially when they aren’t even sitting on one of these reserved seats as this gives me hope for humanity.

Since I don’t claim my reservation on the tube and a lot of times I am dying from tiredness (is that a word?), I like to distract myself with a little game. I like to watch the people who are seated to see who is noticing me and how they are feeling about being seated while they aren’t offering their seat to someone who could use it more than them. This is classic capitalism in the train right? A lot of people show guilt, I can almost read the conversation they are having with themselves if they should offer me their seat or not, while some pretend to be too busy to notice and some others are blissfully in their own worlds. The best are the ones who won’t themselves offer their seats instead ask others to get up to offer me a seat.

You’d think that people who’re subject to difficult situations themselves would be more empathetic of me carrying a child on the tube, but it’s quite surprising to see the number of people from minority communities that don’t give a damn. You’d imagine that people who are supposedly subject to discrimination (based on their gender, race, community, etc.) or have lesser opportunities would be more sensitive to people in need of support but we probably don’t think about topics like disability, racism, sexism, etc. most of the time unless it personally inconveniences us or our loved ones.

So experience doesn’t necessarily give rise to empathy always. I think people are more likely to be empathetic when they are shown compassion in times of their need and feel indebted to give back. Since I am offered a seat on the tube ever so often and I am met with smiles of compassion by random strangers on the street, I am more conscious of giving back, even if it’s just a smile in acknowledgement of someone’s pain. Strange you think? Sometimes just acknowledging someone is a show of empathy and it can take both of you a long way!

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Empathy when unexpected

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After having undergone an overwhelming amount of changes both physically and emotionally over several months, I had just become a new mother. I was so new at it that I hadn’t managed to get a grip on how I was even feeling about this new-found status. A bunch of close friends asked me how it felt to be a new mom and the one thing I had found absolutely fascinating about it was watching my new born feed without even being taught how to. Witnessing basic instinct in its purest form was beyond wonderful.

One of them came up to me privately and told me that this conversation made her uncomfortable. She assured me that it was natural for new moms to be comfortable talking about breasts and nipples but it was not the same with everyone and that I should refrain from discussing it in public when she is around. At first, I was completely taken aback because that was the strangest thing I had heard since I’d become a mom. And then I wondered if  I was just being naive to share my experiences as if everyone were to understand or empathise without any other judgement?

While having a baby just feels like any other thing in my life such as riding my bike or watching TV, I realise people find stories of my new found experience rather boring, strange or impossible to relate to. This realisation makes me more empathetic towards people who don’t have children (yet) and hence, I try my best to not talk about this aspect of my life (barring the occasional spam of photos because “I think” my baby is so cute!). But I must confess this is pretty hard to do given that my baby is less than 3 months old and a LARGE part of my life goes in taking care of her and hanging out with her.

So, do we all learn empathy only once we have experienced something? Is it not possible to cultivate this virtue forward looking? Recently, I was out for dinner with a friend in this tiny Bistro close to home and just when my food arrived, my baby started howling for milk (despite having fed her just before stepping out!). I had no choice but to feed her right then and there, so I wrapped my dupatta around for privacy. I continued eating with my left hand as I fed Berry (my daughter) and watched a waiter from the restaurant unfurl the window blinds in front of me, which was overlooking the street with a huge group of men sitting on their bikes.

It took me a second to realise that the waiter did this for me. I hadn’t asked him to do this. I don’t know if he felt awkward about bystanders looking into his restaurant to find a woman breastfeeding her child. Or I don’t know if he did this to make me feel more comfortable. I’d like to assume he did. He seemed like a nice man. I kept thinking he needn’t have done that because I wasn’t even a regular at his restaurant (in fact, it was my first time!). I was baffled by this stranger’s generosity because maybe empathy is a very underrated virtue.

I felt an immense sense of gratitude for this waiter, but it was conditional to what he did. So my gratitude was not good enough for the unconditional empathy he  had bestowed upon me. Anyway, he probably won’t the impact of his little gesture until he’s blessed with a similar unexpected gesture of kindness and you know what, that’s the best part about it!