Perception, Empathy, Gratitude

Han Yang Lim is currently a student at University College London

“…They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Americanah: good book, wise words. The form may differ but the struggle remains. People need to flee. They need to chase. To seek their needs. We may not understand why others struggle for the things they do, but we must understand their need to struggle.

To understand the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are simple enough. Everyone needs food, shelter and clean water. To be able to do all they can to sustain their lives.

After that they need safety and security. From physical elements or other threats. So on and so forth; once some needs are fulfilled, others arise.

The needs may differ, but the existence of needs themselves, are the constant. Choicelessness and the need to escape from its oppressive lethargy are different from escaping war, poverty or other imminently pertinent dangers. But the need to escape remains, even as those who spend their lives preoccupied with escaping the latter set of threats fail to understand the need for the former. Perhaps, when they have stabilized their safety and material lives, will they begin to understand and wonder: what’s next?

I suppose some needs are understandable, whilst others require that much more thought to get behind. This is why we can’t empathise with the homeless or the less fortunate until we’re without a roof or volunteering ourselves. Experience isn’t imagined. It’s felt. And there is no way to gain empathy without the experience to back it up.

So for those experiencing that lethargy, from being stuck and unable to leave the lives you see yourself headed down, I understand. For those that flee war, that sneak into Europe via boats or other means. For the Rohingya whom no state seems to want and the North Koreans that always seem to be deported by China, I can try to empathise. But I know I’ll never truly be able to. Unless I see what they see, feel what they feel, and have the things done to them, done to me.

I see people squandering chances others would kill to have. The kid that gets into all 8 Ivy League colleges, only to turn them all down. The 40-year old bank managing director/law firm partner that quits their £1 million a year job for an NGO or a start up. People in developed countries wasting their time and their life away while those in godforsaken parts of the globe scrape by just enough for today.

We may shake our head at this and think: they don’t know how good they’ve got it. But the truth is: in our pursuit for something better, we aren’t just satisfying our needs. We’re swapping one set of problems for another. The real question we should all be asking ourselves is:

What problems would we rather have? What needs would we rather seek?

It may be a hassle living independently, having to study a subject I feel little passion for and taking on so much debt as an overstretched university student. But it still beats running from war, starvation and poverty.

In a matter of perspective, hopefully with empathy comes gratitude. For it is easy to want to seek better things in life but harder to take a step back, take a look and be grateful for all that we already have at the moment.

Perhaps what Chimamanda meant when her embattled characters encounter a cognitive dissonance of sorts, is not just the difference in perception and empathy. But the need to be grateful for all things in our lives we take for granted.

After all, even the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness sounds wonderful when one spends a few days in the shoes of the less fortunate.

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