Empathy is arguably the most powerful and unifying principle that humans share. It gives us our humanity. Empathy allows us to perceive an injustice and gives us the ability to help. Empathy transcends religion, race, culture, gender, and class, making it vital to relationships among these categories. Without empathy, the world would be a terrible place.
It is sometimes difficult to feel empathy because of two types of biases that hinder this ability. They are called the here-and-now bias and the familiarity bias. The here-and-now bias asserts that one loses the ability to empathize when removed both spatially and temporarily from the situation in question. For example, I knew that poverty existed before I travelled to Nicaragua. However, my absence and inexperience in having ever seen people live in houses made from tin sheets, boys and girls my age as parents, and children leaving school as early as 7th grade made, me realize how real these problems are. Furthermore, the familiarity bias states that a person who is used to seeing or experiencing certain things may get used to them, and therefore, lack the same empathy someone may feel if they do not. An impoverished person grows accustomed to lacking resources. However, another who lives with plenty would be shocked at the state of this person’s life. This is what I was most shocked with: the fact that my proximity to poverty changed my perception of it. I had always known that families had little to eat or couldn’t send their children to school and was sympathetic to that. I thought that I was grateful for my belongings, my opportunities, and my family. However, it is impossible to truly understand anything if you have not seen both sides. Yes – I knew I was privileged, but this sense of privilege was a dull throb. It didn’t resonate with me how privileged I was surrounded by people, living a life just as fulfilling as mine, but without the excess.
It was an easy decision to join my school mates on a trip to Nicaragua to build an additional classroom for young children. All I had to do was add my name to a list, so I thought; this trip will be a breeze! However, this first step gave a misleading taste of what the actual trip would be like. The Nicaragua trip was not a vacation; it ran a rigid schedule and was physically and mentally challenging.
From 6:45 in the morning until our heads hit the pillows in the evenings we were in action and there was no time to absorb what was happening. The air in Nicaragua is heavy and moving through it felt more like swimming. We drank three litres of water every day, yet never had to use the toilet – sweating took care of that! The joyous shrieks of children and the hum of insects were our accompanying music as we blistered our hands raw, digging into the hardened soil. Looking back, this work was neither quick nor enjoyable yet it was done with the same clinical process a doctor may use during an operation: all my friends were driven by the idea that soon a building would stand where we did, thigh deep in rich smelling earth. During meals, it was always the same procedure, the girls, wary of what touched local water, would barely eat, to avoid any foreign illness. Still, our hunger had to be stilled, so the days went by on handfuls of plain rice.
On top of all the physical stress, none of us had prepared for the mental challenge of this trip; communicating in Spanish or the shock at the sight of our surroundings. Although participants were taking the Spanish class our school offers, our vocabulary was still limited, our grammar dreadful, and our accents comical. None of us Canadians can roll our tongues with the same grace that the small children could, and we were – quite frankly – embarrassed. But it was not shame that silenced our bubbly personalities, rather the sudden change of our environment. The bus rides to and from the construction site were quieter than usual (they were still quite loud) – not because we were tired – but because we were distracted by the people, cars, shops, streets, cattle, and nature outside the bus window.
I have spent a lot of time recounting the hard parts of my trip. But I digress: all I explained – the sweat and blisters– were the less memorable parts of the trip. When we were not working, us girls had the opportunity to play with the children of the community for whom we were building the new classroom. Language barriers didn’t matter to them; all they wanted to do was play soccer or catch or soccer-baseball or volleyball. On the trip, there were at seven girls from my school, including myself, who thought ourselves to be decent soccer players, having played on our champion school team. Nothing was more astounding than when we lost a breezy 9:0 to a team of 8-year-old boys and girls on the first day. What followed was a week of frolicking in farmer’s fields; rolling earth on which plants grew without order or purpose until they reached the bases of the mountains fencing the horizon. And it wasn’t only the children with whom us girls found a new friendship. We ourselves grew closer than ever, sharing our incredible experiences. We sang loudly to Adele songs in the bus (even though we were more pensive than usual), ate ketchup packet after ketchup packet for fun (don’t ask me why), and threw water balloons at hotel guests at midnight (we did get detention, don’t worry).
There is so much more to tell but unfortunately, I neither have the ability nor the drive to write any more on my summer break. If there is one thing I want anyone to understand, it is that if you have the opportunity and ability to travel, to help, and to meet new people, please don’t hesitate to do so. I learned that I need to maximize my ability to empathize with others, and I doubt I am the only one who has learned or who needed to learn this lesson. Without empathy, change would be impossible, for there would be no motivation for people to help each other. The only difference between me and the students we visited in Nicaragua was our location of birth. And that is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
By Luise S.