On Attitude

This morning Mr. Mundra noted that it's natural for things to be hard for us right now; it's challenging to process the quantity of information and perspectives thrown at us over this week in an unfamiliar setting. It's probably fair to say that the past few days have been hard, but understanding why isn't as easy or simple as I had hoped. I didn't arrive in Mumbai until Monday afternoon.  I was jetlagged, and the heat was stifling as we left the airport. I've never been this far from home.

But I'm glad I missed the flight and got to explore London, even if it meant arriving late. I've adjusted to the heat and the timezone.  So what challenged me?

What truly scared me was realizing after two hours traversing Dharavi's interior that I did not care.  I wasn't charged to "do something." I was emotionally vacant.  And I despised that in myself.

I don't know why Dharavi didn't impact me like other members of the group.  It's possible that I found something else mixed in with the misery; it's possible that I found hope in the kids' smiles and sheer innocence, the televisions and cricket games, the pride evident in people's reactions to our presence, the evidence of people living instead of merely subsisting in conditions I don't know if I could have survived. It's possible that true caring, at least for me, results from interaction with individuals rather than masses. Perhaps my apathy stems from the lack of human connection and insight into someone else's story, which inhibits basic empathy.  It's also possible that I'm simply not a kind or giving person, that I'm somehow broken or inherently self-centered.  I don't think I'm ready to believe that about myself, though, so let's ignore that option.

I think a lot of us began this trip, like we entered Dharavi, coloring our experiences with heavy expectations. Niswarth was supposedly life-changing. I wanted to be changed.  Even after a year of service-learning experiences at PA, I think I still wanted to see something that would force me to care about hordes of anonymous people out of sheer empathy.  I wanted this trip to somehow validate my interest in the community service program -- or at least to make me feel as if I was a big enough person to help lead it this fall.  After Dharavi I didn't feel like a big enough person to deserve a spot on the trip.

So where did that leave me? Angry at myself for embarking on a non-sibi trip for sibi reasons.  Angry for thinking only about my own problems even in the heat of this city, amongst people in far worse living conditions, engaging in discussions that drove me to question the validity of my very emotions.  I questioned my own humanity, ability to empathize, involvement with service at PA, and presence here in Mumbai's scorching heat, so far from home.

I second-guessed myself in discussion, trying desperately to make sure nobody realized how cold-hearted I really was. I tried to explain myself to people who seemed to be constantly waiting for their turn to talk, never listening. I questioned myself, wallowed in insecurity, and dug myself into a deeper hole with each encounter with someone who had done something radical and brilliant to enrich Dharavi.  I was incapable of hope that all these little efforts could do anything substantial, incapable of empathizing with whatever passion drove such people to act. I was slowly drowning in increasing guilt.

So what?  The first thing I needed to address was my pessimistic attitude.  I couldn't waste my three weeks.  So I took a deep breath and made myself reset and stop compounding emotions.  I'd said to a friend that maybe we should just let ourselves feel whatever it was we felt and stop using the word "should" to apply to emotions.  I like to think that emotion is deviation off a baseline -- everyone has a similar normal state, and potentially comparable degrees of happiness or depression or anger.  I needed to start taking my own advice and stick it out, be positive, and let whatever comes come.

Second, I needed to check my expectations.  Before touring Dharavi, we had been encouraged to look beyond the base layer of misery and to seek complexity -- in this case, industry, hope, and potential (see Jim Yardley's nytimes article).  Inclined to search for the positive when confronted with hard sights, I struggled to determine how much of my perspective stemmed from this inclination versus from my true observations. With Niswarth as a whole as well as Dharavi, I needed to acknowledge that my hopes and expectations for the trip didn't line up with reality.  I'm trying to discover what the real effects of my weeks here will be.  I'm trying to accept and be grateful for Niswarth -- as it really is, rather than my expectations -- and to make the most of the opportunity.

It doesn't feel like an answer, but it's the best I can do right now.  And that's okay.