Empathy and beyond

Many years ago when my older son was around four, we happened to be at a ferry crossing in India. As we stood in line with the other passengers, waiting to go down the ramp into the ferry boat, I noticed a disabled man on a little cart almost at floor level.

His legs may have been paralyzed and I felt sorry that he must not have been able up afford a proper wheelchair. The gadget he was using was simple yet functional (much like a skateboard) enabling him to move, as he used his palms against the ground to propel himself forward.

While I felt sorry that he was forced to commute like this I could not help but admire his resilience in seeking to be independent in his own way.

I am usually hesitant to give alms to just any beggar on the street because there are many who pretend to be disabled when they really are not. But there was no doubt in my mind that this person was definitely genuine. I hurriedly fished in my purse for any change I could find.

Probably thinking this was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate empathy in action, I handed the coins to my son and asked him to give them to the man, explaining that we’d be helping him.

As we approached the man and my son reached out to give him the coins, I caught the man’s eye and for a split second I was confused. He looked at me with utmost kindness and shook his head ever so slightly.

In that moment I realized something that simply hadn’t occurred to me before – and I kicked myself that it had not struck me earlier. He was disabled for sure, but certainly not needy!

Because he was on a rundown looking cart and dressed in humble clothes I had assumed he was a beggar. I had incorrectly surmised that he could not afford a wheelchair. After all, who would choose to brush their palms against the ground when they could move in the comfort of a properly designed mobility device?

In that brief unspoken moment when our eyes met, something indefinable happened. I found myself humbled by the fact that he understood my intentions, yet held no grudge that he had been so completely misunderstood.

I think of this incident often these days when I am in the midst of doing something very ably with my left hand. Then someone will come along and offer to complete my chore, obviously assuming they can do it better because unlike me they have the use of both hands.

I try not to feel irked because I’d rather they appreciate my ‘ability’ rather than assume that my apparent disability is somehow limiting. But then part of me understands that they are coming from a place of caring – even though they are probably just as clueless as I was then.

I guess we all live and learn … and grow, through every little experience.

© 2018 G.A.I.L

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