~ quoted in Born to Love
As an expat living in Phnom Penh it is perfectly easy to ignore the poverty that the people surrounding you are immersed in. Two nights ago I walked through a crowded Night Market making my way towards colleagues at a Sky Bar above the market. A detached bystander weaving through the throngs, I declined the advances of a few beggars and sellers. With a jolt of surprise at the mass of squirming fish in shallow metal bowls, drowning on a sea of bitumen, I took a sharp turn into a dark alleyway. Did the man saying “Hello” to me from a plastic chair near the entrance even know there was a bar upstairs? Was he guarding the entrance to ensure only a select few with the right profile were entering or was he merely sitting in his usual spot watching the world go by?
At the top of the stairs I approached the bar and ordered a $5 glass of wine. That’s more than most traders working into the night two storeys below us could hope to make in a day. But they were out of sight now. From the open air verandah you look out across the single-storey, multi-coloured, rusted tin sheets crammed ruggedly together to form a patchwork roof over the block-sized marketplace, to scattered high rise apartment blocks beyond. Looking across poverty to prosperity; across the foreign to the familiar.
The open air bar was crammed with people all enjoying our affluence, who had all entered via the Night Market below. Every one of us knew we were two storeys above a mass of bustling traders existing in a micro-economy but it seemed no obstacle to our indulgence. My national colleagues’ reference to “People From The Sky” seemed a pertinent phrase from this elevated position. [Some of my Khmer friends talk about “the people from the sky”, who fly in, dominate with an air of superiority for their chosen amount of time, then fly out again].
A housemate once told me when I was studying indigenous health and planning to move to Alice Springs to work, that “you are enjoying indigenous health now but once you work with them you’ll soon change your mind”. His comments proved to be very wrong, but they reflected an attitude I have encountered for more than 20 years now, that indigenous people deserve their disadvantage through their own individual choices. So it comes as no surprise to learn that in Cambodia, some who prosper also malign the impoverished as deserving of their plight and undeserving of support or empathy. This belief evades recognition that systems and institutions will favour some while excluding and even repressing others, based on factors that are often beyond an individual’s control. Perhaps the issue is too abstract when black-and-white thinking is a much easier way for us to comprehend the world’s complexities.
Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and Maia Szalavitz, a journalist, describe this phenomenon well in their book Born For Love. Expressly, from the book’s introduction, “There’s been a recent explosion of scientific research ….. that show how empathy and the caring it enables are an essential part of human health ….. Empathy remains both intensely important and widely misunderstood ….. Though Americans especially like to proclaim independence, our health, creativity, productivity, and humanity emerge from our interdependence ….. The <ability to empathise> helped us become one of the most successful species on earth. We survive because <we can empathise> ….. This book is about why we need an empathy epidemic. Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work – like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathise is a key part of most social problems – crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few ….. By understanding and increasing just this one capacity of the human brain, an enormous amount of social change can be fostered. Failure to understand and cultivate empathy, however, could lead to a society in which no one would want to live – a cold, violent, chaotic and terrifying war of all against all. This destructive type of culture has appeared repeatedly in various times and places in human history and still reigns in some parts of the world. And it’s a culture that we could be inadvertently developing throughout America if we do not address current trends in child rearing, education, economic inequality, and our core values“.
My personal theory is that the evolution of financial comfort triggers a risk of losing our ability to understand the complex reasons for poverty and disadvantage, as they become remote and therefore less important, to our personal experience. We have also twisted our definition of what success actually means, with an exaggerated fixation on financial factors. This is often accompanied by a focus on highly superficial concerns such as the suburb where you live, the type of car you drive, how many countries you’ve traveled to, or which university you studied at. The quote above from Born To Love brings us back to the reality, that success is actually determined by our ability to relate to and care for each other. As a society, we seem to have forgotten this!