It is the lack of empathy that makes our world a cold, unfriendly, place.
Since I am a public speaker, and I do often get invited to address audiences, I have been asked by my doctor to nurture and protect my vocal cords. So, I have now begin carrying a collar mic with me. This mic runs on 9V battery power. I have to carry spare 9V cells so I am never short of one.
Yesterday, at the airport, a CISF (Central Industrial Security Force – mandated with airport security in India) Inspector disallowed me from carrying the extra cells. We got into a discussion over the matter. Although I was upset, and initially angry too, I let it pass. I heard what the gentleman had to say. He patiently explained to me that he didn’t have a problem with me carrying one cell in the mic, but he would not be allowing the “extras” to go with me.
We spoke over the matter for about 10 minutes. We spoke in Hindi. At the end of it, he thanked me for my “badappan” – magnanimity – in understanding his point of view. And I thanked him for his courtesy and patience with my situation. All through the conversation, he wore a bright, friendly, look on him. He was calm and never intimidating. We parted ways shaking hands and wishing each other well.
This Blogpost comes close on the heels of an unfortunate episode where Indigo staffers allegedly manhandled a passenger – a story that continues to be shared virally and debated across India. Even otherwise, I have often found people at airports, across the world, being particularly uncharitable to security personnel. Both in terms of opinion and attitude, most passengers tend to consider security folks painful to deal with. In the past, I too have been grumpy whenever I have been ‘randomly’ selected, isolated and ‘patted down’ by TSA staff in American airports or when CISF people have asked for my laptop bag to be re-examined. But, over the years, thanks perhaps to my personal evolution and given the high-risk and vulnerable environment that prevails globally, I have learned to understand – and not interpret or imagine – the motives of airport security people. They have taught me empathy.
For instance, Siddarth, the CISF Inspector I dealt with yesterday, told me this: “Hamari koshish bas yehi hai ki hamari nigrani mein koi negative episode na ho jaye. Aap sab bhale logon ki suraksha hamara zimma hai.” – “Our endeavor is to ensure passenger safety and that nothing negative/untoward happens under our watch. We want to protect all you good people out there.” He added, “When passengers get upset with us for doing our jobs diligently, my staff do feel demoralized. But I tell them – forgive them. Keep calm and keep treating every passenger the way you like to be treated!”
I loved that lesson in empathy and Buddhahood. Treat others the way you like to be treated. The essence of empathy lies in understanding – and not in interpreting or imagining. Not just in the context of airport security and dealing with people in uniform, who are merely doing their duty, but in all situations, empathy is a great quality to nurture. You don’t have to necessarily agree with everyone’s point of view, but you can surely see that point of view, and understand the rationale behind the other person’s choices and actions.
It is the lack of empathy that makes our world a cold, unfriendly, place. What we need today is global heartwarming – more patience, more understanding, more empathy. We need more Buddhas, like the CISF Inspector Siddarth!
In today’s Podcast I share two episodes from my Life, almost two decades apart, to tell us why I believe compassion works.
Listen time: 6:12 minutes
Empathy and compassion are key to heal the world.
The other day I bumped into a friend to whom I owe money. I have kept him in the loop, sending regular updates, on our situation (read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal). But I was meeting him after a few years. I told him that I was very sorry for the continued delay from my end in keeping up my commitment. I thanked him for his patience and understanding. He replied, “How can I hold it against you for what you are going through AVIS? I won’t say I don’t need the money back. But I don’t feel short-changed either – by you or by your situation.”
I sat that evening and replayed his perspective in my mind. It was practical. And at the same time it was deeply spiritual; very simple, yet profound. Most of the time, we look only at our situations, our needs, our wants when we demand or expect something from someone. We rarely consider what their story is, what they are going through. My friend’s attitude reminded me of the value of compassion and empathy in relationships. Even in a complicated one where I owe him the money, where I am answerable to him, he had the compassion to not hold it against me, to not judge me for what he thought of my prolonged situation. I sent him a text message that night: “Thank you for being truly human.”
Talking of this incident reminds me of an experience we have been having with someone eminent. We know this person for the past year. The first time we met we spent a good amount of time chatting with him. We exchanged business cards and promised to stay in touch. But whenever we met him after that first meeting, he behaved as if he didn’t know us. This happened again two days ago when he came to a conversation I was curating and hosting – in response to my invitation! When I walked up to him and said hello, he was dismissive and moved on. I was perplexed. So I asked a common friend if this gentleman had poor social skills. The common friend clarified to me that this person had a problem remembering names and faces – it was form of amnesia! Imagine, if we were to judge this person as someone who had poor social skills or someone who was a snob – how tragic would that have been?
Simply, if we can all reach my friend’s state of being non-judgmental, I believe we will have a more beautiful world to live in. Think about it. It’s doable. Surely!
Refusing to be provoked by people and events around you is a skill. You can train yourself in it.
Exasperated that I was not understood and that my sage counsel was not heeded, I gave the agent a very firm dressing down. I was sharp and critical – though I did not raise my voice – and communicated my intense displeasure. The agent, a lady, refused to react. She merely said that we must go to the next step. Which was to check the device’s specs on the online, browser interface. I protested again because I did not want to go through a tech process. The agent just repeated the same line she had just said. I said I was not convinced. She did not show any sign of irritation over my rigid stance. She just repeated herself. I gave up protesting, gave in and followed her instructions to check the device’s specs online. We drew a blank there too as the online browser interface said that the SIM card wasn’t inserted in the device – whereas it pretty much was lodged in it! At this point I told the lady, rather rabidly, that she must own up if there was a network issue in my area and not lead me on a wild goose chase. She simply said that she would have to send a technician over to my place. When I said I needed this support now, today, before 12 noon, she calmly replied saying that she cannot see it happening for the next 4 days given the weekend and the list of pending calls in my areas. I tried telling her in no uncertain terms that she was being very unhelpful, very cold and unempathetic. She didn’t react. She simply gave me my service ticket number and asked me if I had any more queries. I told her I was very dissatisfied with the call and the support she had offered. She merely repeated if I had any more queries. I thanked her brusquely and hung up.
After the call, I sat at my desk for a full 5 minutes just meditating on the conversation and the experience. On the face of it, this lady may appear to be a lousy customer support agent. But my meditation helped me glean and takeaway some important learnings. Logically, theoretically, she wasn’t at fault personally for my woes. She could have sounded irritated or defensive as I riled against her. Yet she was unmoved. There was intense provocation with my irritability, my tone and my resistance to follow her technical support process. But she succumbed to none of that. She was clinical in not reacting. Perhaps she was very well trained to handle irate customers. Perhaps she is an evolved person who separates emotions from actions or responses. Perhaps she is so used to handling such thankless work that she has become immune to any provocation. And that’s exactly my learning.
Through this agent this morning, I relearnt an art. Which is the art of being unmoved in the face of provocation. Think about it. Almost all the time we are reacting to people, situations and emotions. In a given day, we have so many different reasons to be provoked. If we react to each stimuli, we are expending so much energy. We are generating so much negativity within us with each reaction – cursing someone who cuts our way on the road, trying to battle a colleague who sets up obstacles in critical processes at work, reasoning with a spouse who refuses to understand, catering to every whim of a very demanding child, coping hopelessly with a painful health issue and whatever else. Equanimity is not rocket science. It is a skill. You can train yourself in it. Just as you can train yourself to cook, to swim, to sing or to drive. It involves training the mind to be responsive and not reactive. A mind that has been trained will be aware. It will weigh each thought, each action before letting it move on. Awareness helps conserve positive energy, insulates you from negativity and helps you remain calm despite the circumstances or provocations.
At the end of the 5 minute meditation, I sent a prayer out for the agent. As a customer of Airtel I surely feel short-changed. But as a fellow voyager through Life, I feel enriched. So I sent a prayer in gratitude to the agent for the opportunity to relearn an art form and for helping me along in protecting my inner peace.