How may I lend a hand?

Omair Ahmad | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Too close for comfort: Buddhist philosophy talks about attachments that tie us to the world and impair objectivity when solving problems - ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

We can only help people if we are truly enmeshed in their problems

In high school, trying to strike a conversation with a new classmate who did long-distance running, I asked awkwardly, “So your passion is for running?”

She paused and said something along the lines of, “No, my real passion is to help people without being pulled into the problem.”

This level of thoughtfulness was far beyond anything I could deal with. Although I must have said something in response, it couldn’t have been anything worthwhile for I recall nothing of the rest of the conversation.

Our paths diverged when we finished school, and I never saw her again. The words, though, stayed with me through the years. More than 25 years after that conversation, I am still searching for an appropriate response.

We have all, at one time or another, been so involved in the problems of other people that we have lost our own objectivity, become enmeshed in the problem itself, and sometimes become a part of it. It makes sense to want to act in such a way that we can insulate our thinking from the problem. This type of thinking is deeply enmeshed in karmic ideas, and Buddhist philosophy in particular talks of how attachment ties us to the world of samsara, leading to pain. Only the enlightened souls, the Bodhisatvas, can master themselves to act without becoming entangled in it.

That said, there is another part to this argument — and that is illustrated by too much distance from the people you supposedly want to help. A friend at a conference on social issues in India was once confronted by an obviously well-off woman who thanked her for helping to arrange it. It enabled her to understand the problems of “the little people”, she said.

That kind of approach seems more like contempt than anything else. It is what Harivansh Rai Bachchan criticised in his poetry when he said that his gods were not those that kept themselves apart from the people, but entered the battlefield in the fight between good and evil.

These thoughts come back to me with particular force after having attended an online conference organised by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Sustainable Development Goals in India and Nepal. By definition this conference had to do with economic growth, how we plan for the future, and ties between the two countries. The speakers included former ambassadors, academics and representatives of the World Bank.

I posed a question there, and it was a simple one. The way we have designed our world has led us to the current situation. The pandemic has revealed the many flaws that we had overlooked, principally that a huge amount of prosperity was linked to people having to leave their homes to work in far-off cities, even far-off countries. When that ground to a halt, millions were thrown out of work, left with nothing to do but head back to the very homes where they had seen no hope in the first place.

When we rebuild the world after this shock, will we build it again on the same lines, creating the same vulnerabilities, knowing that climate change makes such shocks more and more likely?

To me, that seems deeply unwise. If there is any point to prosperity it is to make people more secure, not less, but we seem not to want to learn that lesson.

A part of the problem is that we have moved too much decision-making out of the purview of people who live in places other than big cities. In the big cities, too, the issues that concern us are those that confront people living in the prosperous neighbourhoods. When rains or dry spells come, at stake — at the most — is the issue of waterlogged roads or the need for water tankers. The polluting of ponds, the destruction of forests, the destruction of crops are just words on a page since such decision makers do not experience these problems.

In 2014, I travelled to Nainital, after the town had gone through a deep change in managing its ecosystem. Ponies and pack animals, I found, were being kept away from drainage areas to ensure that their manure did not flow into Nainital’s endangered lake.

One of the factors that had sparked the change was the moving of the Uttarakhand High Court to Nainital in 2001. Judges are now enmeshed in the concerns of the city, and act aggressively to protect it. The court has been especially active on environmental issues.

This might, in the end, be the answer I have been searching for all these years. We can only truly help people if we are enmeshed in their problems. If we actually want to help, we cannot remain distant from the problems; they become our very own. We are the “little people” we help, or we are of no help at all. This may not solve troubles of the world, but at least we are tied to it by good karma, not bad.


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

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Published on September 18, 2020
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