Empathy and Community Service

It was the first time in my life that I had found myself on crutches. My left ankle had been sprained but with a lot of airline assistance and hopping from wheelchair to wheelchair, I had managed to travel from the United States to India.

There was a lot that I learned while I was on crutches. But some lessons stand out more to me than others.

The most frightening moment for me was when, after two days of being at a meditation conference in India, boldly crutching from tent to tent in the scorching heat on uneven terrain, my other (healthy) foot began to feel sore and stopped holding my weight. Suddenly, the one thing I was leaning on for support – my right foot – was beginning to crumble and I didn’t know what to do.

For the first time since I was in diapers, I found myself in situations in which I physically could not do basic tasks without someone’s assistance. People would need to bring me food from the cafeteria, come every few hours to drive me to the nearest bathroom, bring me to my gate in the airport on a wheelchair, and help me with such absurdly simple things that I was able to do so independently just a month before.

With every such situation that I was in, I found myself witnessing service in an entirely new light. While many of us engage in community service, few tend to understand the perspective of those we are (supposedly) serving.

At the end of the day, I was not able to walk for more than a few feet, so I was grateful to have anyone at all who was willing to help bring me around. However, it immediately put me in an uncomfortable position in which the person who was helping me had so much power over me and I was constantly influenced by it. If the person had to go the bathroom, if they were being slightly careless, or if they stopped to run an errand along the way – I was directly impacted by every action that they took and every detail that they noticed or missed.

What’s worse is that because of the power differential, I felt like I could no longer criticize the person in any way; even if they insisted on feedback, it personally felt extremely trivial to try to nitpick over tiny details that seemed to be overshadowed by the fact that I should simply be grateful to have someone helping me at all.

It was in such situations that I realized that when trying to help any community or person, the people we are attempting to serve may be too grateful for any help to be able to admit that what you’re doing or the way you’re doing it isn’t any good. As someone who has taken several classes and read literature on issues of privilege and power in community service, it was still incredibly humbling to get just a brief glimpse into what it might feel like to be “on the other side” of service.

Ultimately, these issues can only be overcome by empathy. Whether through actually experiencing the person’s circumstance yourself or through taking the time to understand what they’re going through, putting yourself in their shoes is the only way to overcome the power differential which often arises when engaging in service.

Throughout the time when I was on crutches, I would almost inevitably encounter two or three friends, acquaintances, or even strangers who would ask “Can I help?”. While their sympathy was well-intentioned, this question would sometimes frustrate me. Once, in a moment of exasperation, I responded by pleading, “Yes. I really want you to help me. I need your help. But I have no idea what I can ask you to do.”

During these moments, I came to appreciate the people who would not wait to ask “can I help?” but would instead say “Can I carry your backpack? I’ve been on crutches before and I know how much it can slow you down” or the friend who would see me coming to class and set up my chair, carefully placing a seat in front of me so that I could elevate my ankle.

I came to realize that the only way to truly serve another is to be able to empathize, to lose yourself and in the process, discover the needs of the one you’re hoping to serve.

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Intellectual Life

Suraj Sehgal View All →

I am a student, a traveler, an activist, a meditation instructor…. and a blogger!
Come join me on my journey.

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