The human emotional experience is such a complex thing. We have this beautiful gift called empathy. And then there is this invisible, permeable but definite boundary that we also create around our psyche to keep a safe distance from many things- such as mass human tragedies.
We empathize, we understand.. but something in us holds us back from real suffering on account of something which is not happening to us directly. I often feel that if we lowered our guards, the suffering of the world around us would surely begin to permeate into us as real suffering. But our defense mechanisms are robust- allowing us to empathize, but only enough so as not to let us become a casualty of the tragedy ourselves.
Sometimes you become aware of this invisible wall..
Today, as the Friday was settling into noon.. a harsh siren went off in our office building. Many people thought it was a regular fire exit drill. I calmly, almost casually walked out of the building, among a horde of others. It was only once we were out, that I realized this was not a drill but a real fire- the fire department was already reaching.
Wait.. a real fire? In my office?
I began to look around.. “I didn’t bring out any of my stuff!”
“What do you need?” asked the kind lady standing next to me.
I wasn’t sure, but it’s just not nice to not have access to your stuff anymore. I just felt lost, and somehow a little stupid.
“Can I go back in and bring my stuff?”
The kind lady convinced me it was not fire exit protocol to go back into the building for unspecified ‘stuff’.
“I haven’t even had water! I am thirsty” If she was getting impatient, she didn’t show it. We were after all surrounded by our office buildings on all sides in a rather large campus- full of potable water taps on every floor of every building.
“Do you want to eat? We can go to the canteen, you can also get water there,” she said instead.
Though my instinct was to stand and stare at the building till it was declared safe, I agreed.
“Oh no, I don’t even have any money with me!” I realized.
“It’s ok.. I have my purse. You can give it to me later.”
And it just didn’t seem fair to me that I should have to borrow money, while I had some till few minutes back, in a building now suddenly inaccessible.
I scrambled in my coat pockets and found some- and suddenly felt better. I could pay for my own lunch.
This, when I knew all my belongings would most likely be safe once I go back.. this, when this was my desk, not my home or my city (touch wood!).. when I knew no people were in danger..
And I thought suddenly of all those who didn’t have these assurances. Who were stranded, or forced to flee. Syria, Chennai…
If you are wondering what the fire was all about, it turned out to be just much ado about overcooked fish!
But for a moment, the invisible barrier fell off.