People are complex. Everyone is as complex as you. You know those fun times where you have weird thoughts that you think only you can have? They are not unique to you. Everyone has those thoughts. Everyone is the protagonist of their own life. Each person’s mind is as fully alive and messy and contradicting and loud as yours.
Sometimes I think we all forget that. I know I do, especially here in Cape Town.
On our way to work the other morning on Long Street, a young boy began to follow us and ask for money. Before coming to South Africa, I had never experienced people walking along with me while asking for money. This boy walked with us even more than other people in Cape Town have before. He just would not let up. Initially, I explained that I did not have money to give him which I felt uncomfortable with in itself not only because it was a blatant lie as I had money in my purse, but also because I had a full stomach on my way to a nice office. I, as a foreigner, easily had a job and food and money and nice housing in this boy’s home country where he did not have any of those things.
I viewed him as a poor beggar rather than a fellow, complex, alive human who was right beside me because it allowed me to walk away without feeling. Even though I did not physically take anything from him, I took away his dignity in my mind the moment I decided to look ahead and ignore him for those few blocks.
Anyway, as he kept asking, I just started to ignore him. Picture it: a white woman with her nice work clothes and name brand backpack quickly walking and looking ahead to avoid eye contact with this human who is right beside her.
Sure, you could say that I needed to ignore him for my own safety. Or because I did not know what he was going to use the money for. Or who he was going to give it to. Or because he was in the wrong for walking with me and begging for money. Sure, you could say all of those things, and I have thought about those excuses, too. But the truth is that I dehumanized him in that moment because it was easier. I viewed him as a poor beggar rather than a fellow, complex, alive human who was right beside me because it allowed me to walk away without feeling. Even though I did not physically take anything from him, I took away his dignity in my mind the moment I decided to look ahead and ignore him for those few blocks.
And what scares me is that it was not that hard for me to ignore him. It has become easier as I have been exposed to more and more situations like this. And I hate to refer to them as “situations like this” because that is a person that I am talking about. And I hate that I am using this person’s story for my own personal blog on a paid-for trip by the elite university I am attending.
I do not want to be desensitized anymore to suffering and pain. I do not want to be desensitized to people. I need to remember that he has his own agency and fully complex mind and embarrassing moments and pet peeves and goals. He is not just a beggar. No matter what, I need to know that and look him in the eye.
It’s hard to admit, but it is so much easier for me to acknowledge the complexity and humanity in someone who looks or acts like me. I’m not saying that is right at all, but it is an initial reaction of mine that I have noticed.
For example, we were hiking at Lion’s Head yesterday, and there was a point where we literally had to use chains and bars to climb up the face of this rock. I could not get my footing right, and I was really scared because I was not able to get myself up to the next rock. Suddenly, a woman came and helped not only me, but also everyone else behind me to get up.
As I was reflecting on the past week, I was thinking of the difference between my interaction with this woman and the boy asking for money. With the woman, and many other people at the Lion’s head hike who were encouraging me, it was much easier for me to see their complexity and humanity. Without even noticing it, I had awarded them much more respect and dignity than I had afforded the boy.
But you might say – the lady was lifting you up while the boy was trying to take money from you; of course you would respect the woman more.
However, first of all, no matter what, they both deserve to be treated as full human beings because that is what they are. It is their inherent right.
Furthermore, as I think about it, the woman was already in a position to help others. She was experienced, strong, and on a higher level of rock with the means to pull others up. On the other hand, while I do not know the boy’s full story, it is likely that he is not in a position of privilege. It is likely that he does not choose to go beg for money every day because it is fun. It is likely that he would rather be doing anything else.
I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe our first instinct should not be to blame this boy and praise this woman. Before doing that, we need to look at their starting positions and examine the society that created such huge inequality in the first place.
And what I am really trying to say is that we are not special. I mean this in the sense that there is not one of us who is more human or complicated than the other. I am not special. You are not special. That woman is not special. That boy is not special.
We are all humans that see ourselves at the center of our lives. Still, we need to do our best to recognize that intricacy in other people. I really mean this sincerely. I do mean for it to come off in an “Aw, we are all equal, but I am better than you” patronizing way. I mean it in a very real, practical, look-people-in-the-eye way.
I am working on it.