One Man’s Pothole Is Another Man’s Grand Canyon.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in charity is the tyranny of distance. It’s often referred to as the diffusion of responsibility and it refers to that gap that we all experience from the reality of how we live day-to-day in a lucky country like Australia, and the hard-to-imagine reality that hundreds of millions of people are living on the other side of the world.
I haven’t visited a third world country, nor been exposed to the dreadful conditions of famine, poverty and epidemic disease. In many ways I’m not fit to speak on the matter, but as an observer, I’ve known a lot of people who have returned from visiting third world countries experiencing such humanitarian disasters, and their lives are changed forever.
I have lived in a developing nation in South East Asia and that was a big enough eye-opener for me. The contradictions of extreme wealth on one side of the street, and extreme poverty on the other were hard to compute. But like most of us, the people on either side of the street seemed to just get on with their daily routines, as if those chasms that existed between them were mere potholes. There seemed to be an unspoken acceptance, almost a gentleman’s agreement, that one side would ignore the problem, and the other side would not promote it. And so, the new BMW would be parked beside the rusted food trolley and each had its place being there.
When I returned to Australia, these thoughts were often on my mind. I wondered just how much worse it must be in countries where both sides of the road were as impoverished as the other. It made me think about what poverty is for the person living in it, and what poverty is for the person living far from it. Those chasms that exist between the life that a family in East Africa experiences and the life that a family in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs experiences are deep and wide, and hard to fathom from either side. I guess you could say one man’s pothole is another man’s grand canyon.
We in the west are often guilty of making a big song and dance over the most trivial of matters; the small conveniences in life that if we miss out on, become the biggest issues of the day.
“What’s up Chappy, you look terrible?”
“Oh, I was rushing for work so didn’t have time to get my single-origin coffee from the organic café.”
It’s amazing how many people can empathise with something so…nothing.
And yet the life-and-death problems that millions of people wake up to every day remain well beyond our empathy radar. I’m as guilty as the next guy.
Awareness is a hard skill to master because it means we must be conscious of the things around us even if they don’t relate to us, affect us or exist in front of us. I first read about the drought in East Africa on a train ride into work a few months ago. The train pulled in to Southern Cross, I placed the newspaper back on the seat where I found it and went on my way, headphones in and music blaring. The thing on the top of my mind at that point was whether I’d have to wait long for the tram to come. It was cold outside.
It wasn’t until a few days later when I had a bit more time to read another stray paper on the way home that I actually really noticed what I was reading. I was actually involved in what I was reading. The number of people displaced from the worst drought in Somalia for over 60 years blew me away. At that stage it was around 9 million people on the move, looking for food. Now it’s over 13 million. The stories of suffering, of mass migration, of 90 per cent of the country’s livestock rotting in the sweltering heat – they really hit me. My awareness of the world around me, beyond the train carriage and the darkness outside allowed me to feel a connection to something I’m physically and mentality separated from.
By the time I got home, having read and thought about what I read, I had already decided that I wanted to do something to help. I didn’t know what it was then, but it didn’t take long.
I have no doubt that experiencing life in someone else’s shoes is the best way for a person to start understanding the hardships, frustrations and concerns that people in other places endure. I have only experienced a small amount of this myself, and I hope by being more involved in social campaigning that I can experience a lot more. But I also believe that allowing yourself the time, and the humanity to be aware of what’s happening in the world around you can help bridge those chasms that often keep us from thinking beyond our own café walls.