A LITTLE EMPATHY GOES A LONG WAY

Learning from the Early Stage of Life

Many amongst my readers, especially those who did their schooling during 1960s and were part of the Boy Scout movement, would recall that one of the cardinal message dinned in our heads was, “Everyday, do at least one good deed”.

I had also gone through this training. But as middle school students, I and my classmates did not have enough maturity to fully comprehend the meaning of this commandment. We therefore requested our teacher to kindly explain, with examples, what would be a “good deed” which children of our age and capability could do. With the limited exposure of a small-town school, the teacher was also perhaps confused and could not come up with many examples. Only one example was readily and always given – of helping an old person in crossing a busy road.

Every week, we were expected to tell the class about good deeds we did during the week.

As a result, while walking on the road, each of us was constantly looking for some old, infirm person who was trying to cross the road. As soon as we got such an opportunity, many of us would rush to that person and compete to help that person. One who succeeded behaved as if he had won an Olympic Gold Medal.

Our standard joke used to be about a student who one day reached the school very late. When teacher asked him the reason, he replied, “Sir I got late as I was helping an old lady to cross the road.” Teacher was very happy for this “good deed”, but then asked, “Why did it take you so long to help her cross the road?” And the boy replied innocently, “Sir, it took me a very long time because she did not want to cross the road and I had to literally drag her.”

But I must admit that despite not fully comprehending the meaning and spirit, the thought of “doing a good deed”, remained with me throughout my life.

How to define “Good Deed”

Many years after leaving the school, I arrived at a working definition of “good deed” in my mind as “an act of mine which could bring a smile to someone’s face”. To me this is a broad enough definition which encompasses various means at our disposal to help someone. These could further be elaborated as:

  • Financial Help: to help someone (direct financial help to a needy or indirect help in form of a donation to various NGOs). This, perhaps, is the easiest and most used method for helping others.
  • Physical Help: Giving our time/skill/attention to someone or some cause in need. Our proverbial “helping someone cross the road” falls in this category. It could also include some sort of voluntary service like teaching in an orphanage or running a kitchen to feed the needy.
  • Mental or Verbal Help: Many a times, even a thoughtful word or a physical gesture (like touch or smile) can be of great help to a distressed person. What is needed is a sense of empathy, sensitivity to the feelings of fellow human beings and a genuine desire of bringing smile to that person. In my opinion, this type of help can be effective only when the feelings are transparently genuine. Mechanically uttered words or gestures do not help anyone.

My recent experience at Delhi airport

Recently I was travelling through the ever-bustling Delhi airport and was going through Security Check (easily one of the most chaotic and dreadful experiences at any airport in the world). It was unsurprisingly very crowded. The security person frisking and doing body check looked very tired and harassed. I have made a habit of reading the security person’s badge proclaiming his or her name and then addressing him/her by name (instead of treating him/her as a faceless cog in the wheel). This morning also, I did the same, asking him “Ramlakhan ji, how are you? Today seems to be a heavy rush and you seem tired?” The person was taken aback – someone was treating him as a human being. He got emotional and said, “Sir, I am on this duty for the last 4 hours. You are the first person who has talked to me so politely and has expressed concern about my wellbeing. Otherwise, everyone just ignores me. Worst, they start shouting at me if I take a little time in doing a thorough frisking”. I expressed my sympathy and said, “Ramlakhan ji, human beings come with different temperaments. But let me tell you that many of us, including me, recognise how difficult and thankless a job you are doing. And you do it for our safety. Even though, many do not express it, let me assure you that each one of us is thankful that we are safe due to people like you.” When I said this, the man was overpowered by his emotions, with a hint of tears in his eyes. He profusely thanked me and requested whether I would record this in a Register kept with his senior.

I went to the desk of the shift manager in charge and requested him to give me the Register. The man suddenly stood at attention and said, “Sir, I request you not to write a complaint against any of our staff. Please tell me your grievance and I will ensure that it is taken care of”. I smiled and told him that I had no grievance and instead I wanted to write a note of Thank You to his team. Once again, this man was also reduced to tears and said “Sir, I have been at the Airport duty for the last 5 years. This is the first time in 5 years that someone is asking for the register for writing a Thank You note.”

This incident clearly brought out to me:

  • Power of calling a person by his name with a genuine and transparent appreciation
  • Most of the time, we ignore support staff – a taxi driver, a housekeeping staff in a hotel, a security person in our office or in our residential complex, a shopkeeper or vegetable vendor in the market, a delivery boy – the list can be endless. If we can treat  them as human beings, show genuine appreciation for their work and difficulties, life will be little easier for them.
  • At the end of my interaction, the security person was visually delighted. But surprisingly, I also felt much calmer and at peace with myself. The satisfaction I received for having put a smile on the face of a haggard soul brought me a lot of joy as well.

A story I read recently

Often WhatsApp messages in a group are a pain but sometimes you can get real gems. I was fortunate to have received such a gem. This was about a young schoolboy in his early teens. During school vacations, every morning he would board a city bus plying on a crowded route at the starting point of the trip. He would quickly grab a seat. After a few stops, the bus got crowded and many passengers had to stand (no seat was vacant). At this point, the boy would scan the standing passengers and offer his seat to any old or infirm person who was standing. Wherever that person got down, the boy would again occupy the seat and again leave it in favour of a deserving person. This was his daily routine. The conductor noticed this and asked the boy about this strange behaviour. The boy humbly replied that this was his idea of helping a few old and infirm persons with a place to sit in the bus. What an innovative method of doing “Good Deed”

Can each one of us renew our school days promise to do a “Good Deed” every day – to help someone and to bring a smile to someone’s face.

Most of the time, it does not cost anything – it only needs some genuine empathy, sensitivity, a desire to help – and then very little effort can make the other person happy. And you also get a rewarded with a peaceful mind and a sense of calm, happiness.

A person on shore of the ocean was diligently picking up fish (stranded on the beach by receding waves) one by one and throwing them back into the water. One sceptic asked this person, “There are hundreds of fish that get stranded on the shore with every receding wave – your throwing a few back into the sea is not going to make any difference!” The person calmly picked up another fish, threw it into the water and said, “It surely made a difference to THIS fish.” Let each one of us make a small difference to at least one person.”

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