Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rain Over Me

When I was a kid, one of the strange little tricks I found I was able to do is smell rain before a storm would hit. To this day the smell of rain before the storm, when the wetness has begun to perfume the Earth before ever leaving the sky, remains my favorite scent in the world. I have always had a deep connection to water. I am drawn to its ability to simultaneously cleanse and destroy and how it can carry us from one journey to the next. Most of all, I see water as the great elemental symbol of change. It can change landscapes and environments but it can also alter perceptions and ways of seeing. 

Rivers and rain have always featured as prominent moments of communion in my travels; in both Beijing and Edinburgh I came to realize the profundity of my love for each of those places in a moment of rain. Getting caught in the downpours of those cities made me feel that I was really there, really a part of those places. 

It's been raining for the past two days in Dhaka. The mostly unpaved streets are turning into walkways  of squelching mud. The drainage ditches that line the roads are filling up with putrid water, making it very clear to me why the sidewalks are so elevated. So instead of walking through dirt, my rickshaw driver must now pull me through mud. Instead of walking through the heat, women walk barefoot through water I wouldn't step in with tightly sealed hunter's rain boot. 

I have seen water create destruction before. I have witnessed the power with which it can wreck major cities as in the aftermaths of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. In my own small way, I have seen the floodwaters of my basement rise to such high levels as to render the entire space unlivable. But I have never before in my life viewed rain as a hardship. 

Yet it can be. Looking around at my surrounding in Dhaka, I see that even the enjoyment of a rain storm can be an act of great privilege. For the part of me that smiles at getting caught in a rainstorm on a rickshaw, there is a part of me that grimaces as my driver takes me up to the very steps of the cafe, preventing me from getting wet while allowing himself to get soaked. As he peddles off into the storm, I find myself once again confronted by the conundrum of western privilege. Though its been nearly a century since the West held any direct imperial control over this place, the trace elements of colonialism seep to the surface like toxic groundwater overflowing into a lake after a storm. There is a system if hierarchy here that I am benefit from solely from my obvious appearance as a foreigner. But those benefits come with a burden that I am unprepared to handle. For all the special treatment I receive, I find myself the target of what I would refer to as taking advantage of a hope. The hope being that I, the seemingly wealthy foreign woman, will give something more, whether through being told a false price or personal ignorance or pure generosity, than the average citizen here. Yet I am torn. 

This is a personal debate I experience on a daily basis here.  What am I supposed to do? Do you give to the children who beg or do your turn them away? Both options feel utterly impossible. I am from New York and one of the first lessons my parents ever taught me about being a New Yorker is you never give money, you can and should give food but you just don't give money because you'd end up giving it to every person you see. That is a lesson I internalized a long time ago. But that lesson from another part of the world don't seem to be very applicable here. I don't know what to do when a pair of little girls stand next to my rickshaw telling me how hungry they are and can't I please give them some money. What am I supposed to do? I don't know what do when a little boy with a bloody nose chases after me begging for a few spare taka. How do you ignore that? How do you just walk on by? One of the sounds of this place, one of the sounds that will haunt me for as a long as I live, is the sound of the elderly beggar woman's fingers sliding across the side of the car I was sitting as she moves on to try her luck in the next vehicle. Every time they approach me I feel ashamed. I want to turn to her and look her in the eyes and say 'I'm sorry, I am so very sorry but don't you understand, don't understand that I can't. That that's the lesson, you can't help everybody, you can't possible give to all. Don't you know that's what I'm supposed to do?' But that lesson I learned as a five year old doesn't matter very much to this woman. And, since I am clearly not giving her any money, I cease to matter very much to this woman. But she matters to me. 

So you do what you can. What feels right to you. I almost never give to those who physically approach me asking for money. I have my reasons for that. But I would never tell anyone else not to do so. I pay my rickshaw drivers much more than I am supposed to. But that extra money to them is what I feel I can do. I don't know if all of them are good guys, I'm sure not everyone spends the extra money I give them in a way that I would approve of. But that's not my choice. Charity is a lot like love in that sense. if you give someone your heart, you hope that they'll honor the gift you've given them but your act of agency is to chose the vulnerability that comes with giving a part of yourself to another person. In giving that rickshaw driver my money, I hope he will use it to feed his family or to buy his daughter the schoolbooks she needs but once I give I acquiesce my control I no longer have any say in the matter. You can't control much here and as a control freak I find that a particularly difficult challenge. Sometimes, however, in giving up our sense of control, we find the greatest rewards. 

There was one night in Edinburgh, I was walking home from dinner with a friend, when I happened to be carrying leftovers. My budget in Edinburgh was extremely tight so I was very grateful to have the extra food to provide my wallet a little breathing room from the work out it had been receiving. When I walked by this woman on the street I maintained the ultimate New Yorker pose: brusk walk, head up, eyes ahead. I got about two blocks before I slowed completely to a halt. It had become difficult to keep moving forward and I felt a great pull to go back to that woman. I looked down at the food in my hands and looked back to where I had come from. I had to save money, I kept telling myself, I was going to be broke before the end of this trip if I didn't. So, as in any moral dilemma, I called one of my parents. I got ahold of my father first and explained to him the absurdity of my situation "Hi Pop, I'm immobilized on a street in Edinburgh because I'm having a moral dilemma between doing what I think is right and doing the responsible thing for myself." As I explained the situation to my father he laughed at me and said "Listen to yourself right now. You can only ever do what you think is right. Listen to how you're speaking. You already know what your answer is." I hung up the phone, turned around, and gave the woman my food. I can't always help and I certainly can't always help everyone. I wish I could. But if I can't help everyone I can help some or at least someone.

One of my, favorite moment in Star Trek is when Spock turns to Kirk as he is dying and tells him "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." It's a beautiful sentiment especially in the moment. But, as much as I love the ideology behind that quote, I would be cautious to not forget the importance of the one. Sometimes all you can do is help the one. Sometimes it can only be a simple singular moment of kindness. It's important for us to remember the value in that. We always say take joy in the little things, well any act of kindness, no matter how small, is something to take joy in. So Mr. Nimoy, love you though I do, I have to add an addendum to your famous line "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one but never forget the value in simply helping the one." 


                              (The blending of privelege and the world without):


  1. A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

    She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

    The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,

    “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

    The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved. - adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley

    Perseverance against great odds and against the criticism of others is the very hallmark of value-based idealism, as is refusing to accept failure. The understanding that we hold in our hands the power to change a life, a mind, or a circumstance today – right now – is a powerful insight and motivator. At the same time, idealistic acts, even highly symbolic ones, have the power to inspire others to act, and sometimes in numbers significant enough to make a major or even complete impact on the problem at hand. Perhaps most inspiring of all is to witness the idealistic power of children and young people in action. The idealism of youth is a powerful force for leading change in the world. Often it is our youth who put into action values that we have instilled in them – but have failed to act on ourselves. The world, therefore, depends on the idealism of youth to lead the way.

  2. PS. That is a quote from a site called Ordinary People Change the World - and not mine to give credit where credit is due. But the starfish story is a well known one.