(INTERACTING WITH THE NOT-SO-WELL-OFF), BIRTHDAY BOOK 2020
祖哈克 祖齐弗里：恻隐之心 人皆有之（如何与贫困人士交流）
“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and the soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind of eye couldn’t detect.” Mark Twain
In recent times, the invisible, marginalised poor have been revealed to Singapore. Their realities are removed from idealised visions of a first-world utopia some of us hold to. Mark Twain talks about the “seeing eyes”, a sight that is able to read “the heart and the soul.” In this essay, I want to focus on how we can manifest compassion by adopting Twain’s formulation of sight-as-interaction. In particular, I wish to discuss a subtle variety of compassion in interactions with those who are not well-off. Through this act of “seeing”, I hope that we can cultivate an understanding of the underprivileged “other”. To me, this is integral to not just the cultivation of a more compassionate home, but to the notion of seeing things with clarity.
Sometimes, we may find ourselves in a group with others who
may not share the same level of privilege. You might unintentionally slide into a discussion about a luxury which others do not have the chance to enjoy. Perhaps it’s the trip you had over the vacation, or some really delicious food at that new cafe in town. It could also be complaints — how your salary is not enough for you to get that handbag, or how your parents should be increasing your allowance.
Be aware of the silent one, or the one who smiles awkwardly, or the one who brushes it off by saying “oh it is alright!” or “I am fine, please don’t worry about it.” It is not simply about everyone sharing the same experience. Instead, the lack of access to these experiences due to their unaffordability can exclude someone from the experience itself. These things are not necessarily limited to material pleasures. It could be having parents who are still married to one another, or having family members who care for you, or having a place to return to at the end of a long and difficult day.
We should always be mindful that others may not come from the same background as ourselves. This may seem like common sense, but common sense may not be so common when we fall into the habits of the everyday cultures in which we find ourselves. This cannot be an excuse to be complacent or to dismiss it. Rather, we can cultivate this awareness, which will only grow in strength. If you can do simple mental sums, then you can surely do this.
So you’ve realised you’ve entered a conversation that is not inclusive. What do you do? Change the topic. Change it to something which everyone can participate in. It is not so difficult. But don’t make the situation awkward, especially for the individual. This might happen if you give others looks or abruptly stop the conversation. Instead, opt to turn the conversation away and enter a new realm of discussion as naturally as possible — sometimes, the kindest acts of conversations simply begin with “Can we talk about something else?”.
Don’t apologise to the individual. Apologising just makes things worse because you indirectly single them out as a “problem.” Ironically, it contributes to a sense of alienation for those individuals. There is a place for apologies but this immediate situation is not one of them. Rather, a more gracious thing to do is to apologise personally after the whole thing.
You might also know a person who is not well-off, to whom you would love to give a treat. This is a nice thing to do. But even in such interactions, there has to be a degree of grace, subtlety, and consideration. Here’s a useful rule I call the “Rule of Self-inclusion”. Whenever you want to treat someone to something, be it having a nice meal or going out to do an activity, include yourself in every aspect of it.
What do I mean by this? I think it be useful to illustrate this by way of treating someone to food (yes, that Singaporean passion). Instead of buying specific portions of food, you can order a variety of different food items and share it with everyone. In this way, you “include” yourself into the treat, and shift the attention away from the individual you are treating. You not only avert any feelings of discomfort or indebtedness (“make people feel paiseh”), you also enrich the experience by sharing and partaking in a meal with them because the social lines are blurred at the dinner table.
As far as possible, do not deny the opportunity for the other party to treat you in return. You may feel that they need the money more, but accepting the treat can actually be the kinder gesture. It is in your receiving that a bit of self-dignity is restored for them.
When we engage with discussions on poverty, we should not assume to know better than the underprivileged about their condition. We do not presume to tell doctors how to do their jobs. In that vein, we should not prescribe solutions or pass value judgements on those not as fortunate as ourselves, especially if we have not undergone such experiences.
And even if we have, we should be aware that not all poverties are the same, with different complexities and considerations. Do not cite statistics, figures, number, citations, studies, surveys, and technical jargon; nobody cares. A better approach is to listen to each individual story. Ultimately, human experiences cannot be quantified. Instead of trying to justify our notions of the nature of poverty, we should instead learn to talk less, and listen more to the poor with a beautiful patience.
Only by listening, can we cultivate “seeing eyes.”
Teacher’s Comments: It is interesting that you choose to use “domestication”（归化法） and translate “seeing eyes” as “恻隐之心”. I think that this translation fits the context of the story quite well, but if you want to keep the word “eye” in your translation, you can also consider using “慧眼“.
Empathy by Zulhaqem Zulkifli
Translated by Denise Melody Goh (21-U6)