Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Real empathy is impossible; or, Simple Pickup in the developing world

To pound the topic of pickup to its cold, dead end, let's talk today about how blessed everyone living in the United States -- or the developed world in general -- is when it comes to leisure time.

There are communities that revolve around discussing "first-world problems"; on Reddit, in the top 5 are, "I like Google+ more than Facebook but none of my friends are on it," and "My laptop screen is so glossy that I can see myself masturbating." I've complained about them before: Chick-a-Fil filling my drink with just too much ice; the New York Times not refreshing fast enough to satiate my 10-minutes checks; being unable (unwilling, really) to shell out the money to install good car speakers so I can play dubstep on the way to work.

Quora, the smarter, sexier Yahoo Answers, notes in one question that the one thing that has to be experienced to be believed is living in a third-world country. The argument goes: try eating on 34 cents a day, having to bury your own shit after going to the bathroom, living in a minuscule sweat-soaked shack with ten other people, making your own "shoes" out of banana leaves when the rocks and broken glass become too much. It's not possible to imagine, no matter how hard you want to, or try to.

I haven't experienced any of this, of course. I'm working for a non-profit in the Philippines that analyzes the effectiveness of social and economic programs here. I live in an expansive apartment (albeit in the red-light district), eat three meals a day, and, spend most of my time thinking about development and this blog, not whether this bump on my back that's steadily growing bigger is eventually going to kill me. My time horizon is months and years, not minutes and days. In 3 weeks, I'll be travelling to a rural region and living among the ultra-poor (that's an actual term) for a week, monitoring their living habits and talking to pastors in the region about livelihood programs, but other than these occasional field visits, I'm a visitor to this poverty. Aleksandar Hemon explains it best when he says that, "I could see out, the people outside could see me (if they chose to pay attention), but we were living and breathing in entirely different environments." I'm in Manila, but I'm not really in Manila.

Yesterday, I walked to work on the shady side of the street. The smell was slightly noxious, of feces and garbage, even though I couldn't see any visible around me. As I looked across the street, I literally almost stepped on a man. I yelled and jumped back just before I did, and, on the sidewalk, saw a 50-year-old, skin as dark and wrinkly as a prune, curled up in a half-fetal position on a checkered, smutty blanket. There was a small bag next to him that contained the extent of his belongings. He didn't move at all when I yelled. I immediately crossed the street and didn't look back.

In a moment of embarrassing lucidity, I realized how stupid my own complaint at that moment was: my shirt was getting soaked from the sweat, and I would need to do laundry again. The homeless man, though, was soon whisked away in my mind. It's inevitable. Like Hemon notes, if we as humans really thought about these problems, "we would be continually devastated by the magnitude of that inescapable fact." Like he mentions, if we thought about the fact that, at any moment in our lives, we are actually a breath away from dying, it would be quite difficult to live like we normally do. This is why empathy -- true empathy -- is exceedingly rare.

Empathy -- forget those mirror neurons -- happens during life crises: a terrifying illness of a family member; a shared near-death experience; a moment of pure love. But outside of situations where we can't possibly think of ourselves, we don't. Humans, for the most part (to 2 standard deviations) live with what I call a squishy empathy: one that can be poked and prodded during moments of relative turbulence moments, but inevitably returns to its normal buoyant self.

It's hard for me too. When I arrived in Manila, I didn't see the signs of poverty around me, still feeling the residue of focus on what had been on my mind all summer: pickup. My first weeks here, the internal dialogue in my head was not, "I need to get to work to help," (though I did do that), my thought process was, "I wonder if Simple Pickup works in Manila?"

Here's the short answer: it doesn't. On my way to work one day, I passed by one of the top law schools in the city. Everyone there spoke English, was relatively affluent, and had probably traveled abroad. If there was one place it'd work, this was it. Approach #1: nothing. Approach #2: I tapped this very pretty student coming out of a crowd, and asked her why she was all dressed up (you know, with a half-smirk-half-smile).  Her response wasn't notable for its lack of interest; it was notable because she exactly how she deflected my interest. "I don't know," she said. "Go talk to the guard." Usually, with an indirect opener, there's a little interest, even indirect, that comes out of a residue of politeness. Here, politeness plays second fiddle to other concerns. Her response told me, "I've never talked to a random person on the street. Period." This is different than an American response, which would be, "I've never talked to someone random on the street, so this is a little weird, but I'm willing to give you a little benefit of the doubt."

There have been other attempts; the results have been similarly lackluster. In a country where money associated with sex trafficking is the 4th largest contributor to GDP (can we just pause and talk about how crazy this is?), it's difficult to bypass every alarm filter a woman has walking down the street, break down her connotations of your personality, and successfully convince her you're not trying to drug her, steal her money, or sell her off to an offshore Chinese businessman.

I might be wrong. I hope I am. I really believe that anything is possible, and if the Simple Pickup guys were here, maybe they'd have success. But oh, I forgot -- there's a language barrier too. After a week of thinking about the possibilities, I've realized it won't happen. (Of course, that's on the street. In the clubs, in a cafe, at a bar -- the atmosphere's more sexually charged here than anywhere I've been in America, and I'm not talking about those bars.)

In the grand scheme of things, of course, thinking about pickup is the paragon of a first world problem; a distraction from the unspeakable that happens on a daily basis. There is never a positive side to suffering, and the act of acknowledging it, fiercely, with my own eyes, only makes the world worse.

I never understood what the phrase, "When in Rome..." really meant, but I'm going to apply it here: When in Manila, don't focus on simple pickup. Focus on simply helping.

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