And it is actually rather frightening.
Today I spoke with a woman I sometimes see here in Azuqueca. Her name is Laura. I met her outside the supermarket, where she works... asking the shoppers for money as they enter or exit. Laura has a daughter who will turn two this week. She wants to buy her a small birthday cake, but she doesn't know if she can.
After I talking to Laura for a few minutes I turned to leave and suddenly I felt the distance between her daily life and my understanding of what it is to be in that position. I realized, in that instance, that I had absolutely no way of comprehending what it would be like to be a mother, without a stable job, trying to support her family from day to day, not even certain I would have enough money to buy my little girl a cake for her birthday. Nothing in my life experience has compared with that. None of my cares have ever approximated those of Laura, or of so many other people who struggle to get by. I have felt empathy, perhaps. I have felt love or sorrow or pain for the people when I've seen them or heard their stories, but none of that is anything like being in such a position personally. Not even close.
I was listening to a TED talk yesterday by Jessica Jackey, the co-founder of Kiva. She talked about her introduction to poverty and her journey to beginning this online micro-lending system that has now provided over $25 million in loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. She talked about what it meant to her to actually know the people who we call "poor." Talking to them, being friends with them, she saw them as individuals. And not only suffering individuals, but individuals who had every bit as much life and love and joy and sorrow and intelligence and hope as anyone else. And as much variety too. She wants us to see "the poor" not just as them--those who need our help--some ambiguous group, distant from us--if not in space, in their very being they are distant to us... different--but as true human beings and individuals.
I think she's right. I think we need to know who these "poor" people are, what they think, what they dream and what they know on a personal basis. That is why grassroots development and community based projects, though small, often are the most effective. They are not led by people from far away who see developing nations from a distance and as a conglomeration of people who, though important and even loved, are part of one large problem to be solved. It is easy to see things that way. But I believe that we will never achieve real change while we continue to treat poverty and development as a group issue to be solved by the outside. That kind of development has proven itself misled and wasteful at best. Because really, without being in the situation yourself, however much you have seen or studied, you don't know what it is like.
But I am not just thinking in terms of poverty and development. I am thinking of the myriad of ways in which we fail to understand each other. Not because we don't try or because we aren't compassionate enough or we don't listen enough (though these things happen too, at least for me at times). Rather, because there are limits to how much we can understand about others, ever. A perfect example comes from a close friend of mine. She expressed to me once her frustration in the fact that, though she was able to share so much with her husband and was closer to him than basically anyone else, there were still divides. There are still things that can't be shared and understood fully between these two people whose lives and future are now one. They are still separate beings with different ideas and thoughts and perspectives. Love, marriage, dedication, intimacy, time--none of it was enough to close that gap entirely.
Perhaps all of this is circulating through my mind now because I just finished reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It is a story about and told by Christopher--a 15-year old mathematical genius with a form of autism (though he never uses the word or explains the exact nature of his "behavioral problems" in the book). The book is highly acclaimed, and I add my own positive review. Because it is funny and smart and interesting and captivating. But also because it does something akin to taking you inside the mind of another person. Inside a mind which is complex and beautiful and completely distinct from my own mind. And while reading I was blown away by this trip into another mind and another way of seeing and understanding the world. To an extent I felt I could share Christopher's view of the world. Yet, there is a limit. For example, I was shocked by the way in which he literally observes everything, as he frequently mentions. I tried for just a moment to notice everything around me while walking on the street today, and it was dizzying. I couldn't do it. It was impossible for me to even begin to see the world as this boy might.
There is always a gap. There is always some level of distance between the life, thoughts, experiences of one person and that which any other person can ever connect to and comprehend. That's nothing new. We have all felt those moments of disconnect. Even with those we are closest to. It can be hard. It can sometimes make us feel lonely or frustrated or strange.
But I think sometimes we also forget. We forget that we don't understand. We don't get other people. And with the majority of the people in our lives we barely skim the surface of their actual being. What does that mean? I don't know. A lot of things I guess. But most of all, I suppose for me it means (as I should know by now) that I need to be more vigilant in questioning my assumptions and my judgments. I need to do my best to know people well, and give them the benefit of the doubt. And also, I need to be grateful for every joy and blessing I have. Because I will never know how grateful I should be.. because I will never know what it is like not to have all I have. And I will never know what it is like not to be me.
And it's weird.