A kid asks: What is empathy?

For all those who have kids do know that they can ask a lot of questions to you. Some are difficult to understand while some difficult to answer.

Empathy, they say, is something similar to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand and feel what they are going through.

But that might be a difficult thing to explain to a kid. I thought I’d give it a try:

One fine evening, while its getting dark you are trying to get home and its raining slowly. You have an umbrella to protect yourself from the rain and walking down the road in your chappal. With the condition of the roads here, you are trying hard to ensure that you avoid stepping on one of those deceptive water-logged chunks, whose depth is unknown.

A car comes honking whose owner seems to be in equal hurry to get home and is speeding. The car drives past you splashing a whole chunk of mud water on you. (Hold that thought)

On the next day, you are driving your dad’s scooter and passing by the same road. The water logging still exists, and you see a couple of school girls heading to school.

Empathy is making sure that you don’t splash mud water on them while driving past because you know and can understand how it feels.

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What do you need the most? Knowledge and Education.

Its been over an year now since I started working at, what they say, grassroots level on projects around livelihoods in Rural India. Well mostly UP and then Bihar, Rajasthan. When I look back at my very first interaction with the villagers on a project I was assigned the picture in my mind is still fresh mostly because of the conversation I had. It remains firmly etched in my memories.

May 26, 2010: I went on to meet the people of Ramkola Village, which happens to be surrounded by water on all 3 sides and gets submerged (read: flooded) with water every time there is heavy rain or a flood situation. Its like a “for granted” situation for them which they have accepted as their fate every year. They also have their own coping mechanism and mostly survive the after effects of flood each year.

I went to meet the men, women, elderly and kids to understand the situation there to plan and implement an “Early Warning System” which I had been assigned. I interacted with them as an outsider so that they could feel free to talk and share complains about the organisation I worked for, in case they had any (fortunately they didn’t 😉 only complaints about the government).

After the hour long conversation with the group, I happened to ask one question to them in the end.

“What is it that you need the most here?”
The First Interaction
Response from one of the male members (around late 30’s or early 40’s) who appeared to be the smartest or wisest,  was

“अब क्या बताएं, यह बाढ़ वाढ़ से तो हम निपट ही लेते हैं॥ हमें तो चाहिए ज्ञान और पढ़ाई लिखाई॥ उसी से हम सबका भला हो सकता है और तरक्की हो सकती है हमारी”

Translation: We know how to deal with floods each year. All we need is education, knowledge. Its the only thing that can really help us develop and bring good to our families.

Knowledge. Education. They know how to survive and cope with floods and they don’t really need help there. They understand where there real upliftment lies in.