“I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took.” – Somerset Maugham
Upon returning home from journeys to Burma, India, Bangladesh, or Ethiopia, I am often asked how I could deal with seeing the poverty. Or worse: variations of dismissals: “I just can’t go to those places and see those kinds of things; it’s too depressing.” My response is that ostriching one’s self away from the pain of others does not make it dissipate. And are all impoverished people in developing countries as unhappy, as many air-conditioned country clubers assume they are?
On a deeper level there is more to it than that. Writer and speaker Karen Walrond asks in the above video:
“…would you see the loving mother with a child, or a woman with tattoos on her face… would you notice the holy man or would you notice the poor man?”
It is all about perception, and often what is seen tells as much about the viewer and it does the viewed.
After a month in Pakistan and India, I returned to my job here in New York. It had been my fourth trip to the Subcontinent, but this time I came back with a new revelation. My boss and I had, for many years, a vitriolic relationship, and no sooner had I arrived back at my desk — still emotionally cloaked in the remnants from my trip and hazed with jetlag — than he combusted before me over a triviality. He liked the game we would play, and I sparred well with him: He would yell, and I would yell back or dismissively walk away, and it had been that way for seven years. But not today.
Two weeks prior I was walking through Dharavi slums outside of Mumbai. Ducking thorough a virtual tunnel of exposed electrical wire that was barely holding up a second floor above me, I stepped into a large bright area filled with recyclable garbage. Used plastic bottles, buckets, broken plastic tables and chairs, all piled two stories high toward the back of the wall. And on the other side of that wall plumed black smoke where the detritus was melted down and re-purposed for use as large multicolored plastic mixing bowls that you find in dollar stores.
But what struck me in the heat, among the refuse, in one of the largest slums in the world, were children laughing and playing with a goat. One girl posed in front of me with one hand on her hip and the other in the air and said, “Take picture!” Cameras are verboten in Dharavi so I had to decline. But I told her, “My camera is broken, but I’ll take the pictures in my mind.” And with that I faked a camera by framing her with my hands and making chk-chk-chk sounds. She posed and we laughed. I will never forget her face.
Back in New York, those pictures slide-showed like a scrim over my boss as he dissolved before me. For all those years I’d felt nothing but disdain for this man and suddenly it all faded away. He was no longer my enemy. What I saw was a man with a thriving business, a privileged upbringing, an adoring wife and two children, two cars, and two homes — and as he sputtered and screamed at me, I was calm for the first time. I no longer saw a person who was angry; I saw a person who had it all yet had nothing. And the picture of the laughing barefoot girl in Dharavi slowly chk-chk-chk’d over the image of a poor rich man, yelling at me. It was over.
It is a vast simplification: a distillation of a moment of joy fire-cracking in a garbage heap in India. Lesser impoverishment would, undoubtedly, improve the lives of the people of Dharavi, (and that is precisely what the five-person tour I took is helping to do).
But research shows that once we have the things we need, our happiness does not increase with more car keys and finer china. The joy we find in the simplest of things is the joy we find within us. It’s about how we perceive the light refracting within the snapshots of our lives. Do we see the child’s dirty face, or do we see her smile?