EmpathyThis is a lesson in humility.

And empathy.

And humanity.

In knowing your place in life, in this world, and amongst human beings.

And it all started when I was 2 days into a 3 month trip to India and Nepal back in 2010.

Now, you need to know that the year before had been quite dramatic and filled with a heavy break-up, a deeper depression than I’d had known so far, the buying and single handedly renovating of my house AND working 70 hour weeks (with that same ex).

It wasn’t a good year…

It was one filled with blood, sweat and tears for a whole bunch of reasons and my 3 month trip was the present I had given myself to allow my emotions to find a quiet place in myself.

To let it all sink in, remember who and where I was and to slowly start rebuilding myself again.

For I had been completely lost that year and on the verge of a burnout (or already in it but too stubborn to get it diagnosed).

But such was the state of my body, my mind and soul…completely burned out!

So when I arrived in Mumbai…

…I was obviously overwhelmed by the busy, hectic and hot city.

Lovely and fascinating as it is, I couldn’t relax into the urban vibe and even only 2 days in, I had wondered for at least 30 times:

“Why, for crying out loud, would I choose to go to India in a burned out state of mind?”

Because even tough I absolutely love the country, it’s not one to just sit back and relax…

Instead, it’s one where life constantly washes over you…where you’re reminded of your Western and rich privileges, your ignorance and pretty much everything else that happens between life and death in every single minute that you’re there.

Most of the times, the lessons are relatively subtle…other times, they’re like being smacked in the face with a sledge hammer…

And indeed lots of things happened on and after this trip…but one particular event…tiny as it was…stood out…

I had been visiting the tourist area…

…and wanted to take a taxi back to my hostel which was about a 20 minute drive…60 minute in Mumbai evening traffic as it turned out.

In India, haggling for price is of course a must-do.

So I had asked the hostel staff what the absolute maximum was for a taxi fare into town and had planted this price in my head together with the clear intention to not go for anything lower.

So when I found a taxi, the only one around, I got really annoyed that the driver wouldn’t budge on those last few rupees (it couldn’t have been more than 50 cents).

But…as I was tired and didn’t feel like walking around and finding another taxi, I did give in after about 10 minutes of dramatic negotiations…but I wasn’t happy about it!

DSC00266And then we got stuck in Mumbai traffic, as you do around 6pm.

And though I usually love looking at the heavy diesel trucks painted with flowers and decorated with glittery strings and how a wide variety of Indian urban life with all it’s colours and smells slowly passes you by, I was obviously not feeling it this day.

So when we hit a traffic light…

…and an old lady tapped on the window a couple of times begging for money or food I said NO without thinking and without even looking.

And oddly enough, the same driver that had been so difficult haggling about those few rupees turned round and looked at me with a look that was a mixture of astonishment and pity.

And then he got some money out and gave that to the old lady…

I didn’t really grasp the significance of this as I was mainly annoyed (yes, still…) that he would so easily give money away to a beggar but had been so difficult with my fare.

Until I turned back to the lady who had been looking at me and caught her eyes…

This lady must have been at least 70 years old (or at least looked like it), had lived on the busy streets of Mumbai for God knows how long and was surviving on whatever people could spare…

And yet, there was no astonishment nor pity in her eyes…

There wasn’t even the disappointment or emptiness we’ve learned to expect either…

Instead, the look she gave me hit me right in the core of my being…

Because all I could read in those old eyes was empathy…

Empathy…for the rich little Western girl who couldn’t even spare a Dollar that would’ve allowed her to eat for a couple more days.

Empathy…for the woman so emotionally empty that she couldn’t even look at the beggar knocking on her window.

Empathy…for the person in the taxi who was apparently not able to love herself enough to recognise someone living on the streets as a fellow human being.

And behind those empathetic eyes I could see a soul filled with endless wisdom. And a knowing that was all compassing and endless in its truth.

It knocked the wind right out of me…

But before I could gather myself the taxi drove off…

DSC00259And I was left in the back of that taxi…

…with an immense feeling of shame, guilt and sorrow for my own lack of humanity.

My own lack of empathy for other beings.

My lack of self love.

And for the lonely fact that no one had ever looked at me like that before…

That no one had ever truly seen me like this woman had in those 3 seconds.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the lady…

…the next day (my last day in town) to take her out for a meal and new clothes for her and her entire family but something did obviously and very clearly change in me and in my behaviour…

First of all, my behaviour around money when travelling (but back at home too) changed significantly.

I still haggle in shops and for transport, because it’s part of many cultures and because the starting prices for Westerners are often horribly unreasonable…but I no longer go to the very bottom and I make sure I’m generous with my tips.

I also make sure I always have some loose change in my front pockets and/or some bread or cookies in my bag for people in the streets. I don’t give to everyone but I make an effort to listen to my intuition and give to those people that seem honest.

And if you get ripped off here or there…that’s okay too.

It’s not like you’ll have to do without your next meal because of those few dollars, whereas these people and their families probably will…

But the most important take away…

…from this experience was that I realised what a self absorbed whining little bitch I had been…

And that even though I obviously still had a really long way to go to be the person I wanted to be, that I was nowhere near loving being me, I did regain a new sense of self.

And the person I wanted to be was one that understood that wherever you are in life, there’s never a reason to not treat other people the way you would like to be treated.

Who realises that wealth and wisdom has nothing to do with money and success.

And who wants to make a conscious effort to truly see, acknowledge and empathise with each and every human being out there.

Because receiving that love and empathy from that old lady, even though it was packaged in just a 3 second look, has been the most valuable gift I’d ever been given.

And to be able to pay that gift forward…would be the most valuable gift I could ever give myself.