Immersion Stories: Bilqis Kencana
Travelling to India was incredibly exciting, well, if I am honest, I was probably more nervous and a little anxious. To spend three weeks with people in a vastly different culture, in an entirely new place and country I’d only dreamed of visiting. I knew deep down the opportunity to learn real skills for empathy, to apply it for real, and do something positive in the world was something I didn’t want to miss. The following is a reflection from these experiences, ironically, based on my very first meeting in the village. It was special in so many ways, not least because it has helped me see others in an all-new light.
Overcoming sympathy with deeper understanding
Thinking back, I can attribute my initial apprehension to misunderstanding the nature of empathy, in particular, the difference between empathy and sympathy. As a nurse I view myself as a compassionate person and more than anything in travelling to India I wanted to avoid offending anyone! I have since come to realise that learning to think about others, detaching my perspective from theirs, and taking time including listening more for deeper understanding can allow me to move beyond shallow sympathy. For me personally, this has been an incredibly powerful realisation. Without this awareness I feel it is likely to fumble through life, being self-focused and never really understanding others.
With the following stories I attempt to share my empathy-based understanding for Banarsi, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Meanwhile, connecting back to a past experience in Sydney with a patient, Tom. Through these experiences I felt a familiar sympathy mindset forming, whereby assumptions and judgments take over. Happily, I can report that through the guided process in India, I was able to move beyond these simplistic views towards deeper, authentic understanding with empathy. With very different outcomes because of this approach! Through these stories I realise just how powerful it is to connect with diverse people, learn their stories and seek new perspectives on life. This might just influence my own circle of life.
Genuine sharing leads to introspection, inspiration & empathy
Banarsi was the first villager I met in the village in northern Bihar. On first glance he might not seem special, though the kindness and strength that bind his family and community together, are super-powers for sure! The moment we sat down over a hot chai, I was overwhelmed by Banarsi’s openness and willingness to share much of his life with me. Sitting inside the simple mud and thatched palm bungalow, with conversation facilitated by a translator, I listened intently, interjecting occasionally to guide the conversation to areas of genuine curiosity. Once I was aware of self-bias and assumptions popping into my mind (which is harder than it sounds!), I found connecting with Banarsi came quite naturally. Until that experience I hadn’t fully appreciated how impactful listening could be! It allowed me to immerse myself in the conversation, access deeper understanding of Banarsi’s perspective on all sorts of topics, at times feel his emotions and get a sense for his authentic personality. Also, listening more allowed me to reflect on my perceptions in between conversation points, as I wasn’t constantly thinking of what to say next.
This experience was the first step of entering a profound level of empathy together. Over time, as we interacted more (conveniently Banarsi is our neighbour!) our conversations grew increasingly heartfelt and emotional. We spoke about all facets of life, many of which represented hardship to Banarsi and his family. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there was one key inspiration I captured from him; he was happy and grateful for what he has. This allowed me to reflect on the things I take for granted in my life.
For me personally, the most impactful moment was when talking about his family and how much he adored them. The ramification of this particular conversation grew on me, as I reflected afterwards about one of my patients back in Sydney who shared a story about his family in a completely different light. These two contrasting experiences made me think about things in a new way, as a circle of life. Even though every life starts with birth and ends with death, what unfolds in between is an individual journey, with each experience affecting life in cause-and-effect.
Banarsi’s positive energy sustains a household
Banarsi’s life is split between two locations, his birth village Saurath and the city of Kolkata. In the village he lives with his mother, wife, two sons and one daughter, the youngest sibling. He is the only income provider for his family, however the village does not provide enough economic opportunity, leading to work as an OLA driver in in the city, about 700km away from the village. Due to the very long distance, Banarsi visits home infrequently, but tries to visit as often as he can afford.
At the time we met in early 2018, Banarsi was visiting home to oversee care for his mother. She has a history of health problems, most significantly kidney cancer, with treatment involving a number of operations. Furthermore, as she gets older, more health problems are emerging including respiratory and diabetic related problems. Knowing this, Banarsi was willing to put a pause on his job despite financial difficulties, but he says “we make do with what we have. Money is not a priority, family comes first.” Banarsi explained that he does not mind taking care of his mother even though he has to make big sacrifices. I sensed immense pride in his words.
Banarsi’s outlook on life is overwhelmingly positive. Even though he has few material possessions (and perhaps because of this!) he sees everything in life as a reward. He is appreciative of what may seem little things in life, such as cooking a meal for his family. This positivity seems to seep into his entire family, especially his young children, who approach studies with vigour and ambition.
Tom’s family disconnect a matter of history and sacrifice
During my time with Banarsi, I couldn’t help but reflect on an encounter I had with Tom, a patient in a hospital in Sydney. It is difficult to say exactly why I made this connection, perhaps it was similar health and family contexts, or the contrasting perspectives on life, priorities and values.
During a nursing placement, as part of my undergraduate degree, I spent three days caring for Tom, a patient well known in the ward due to frequent visits with a chronic illness. At first, it struck me that Tom didn’t receive many visitors, which contrasted to most other patients. Sensing his isolation I was determined to spend additional time with Tom, while trying to better understand his situation.
Tom is in his 80s, living at home with his wife, who is also suffering long-term illness. Under normal circumstances Tom is the carer of his wife; he cooks, cleans the house and bathes her every day. I learnt this following a conversation whereby he expressed a desire to go home prematurely. Since he too was ill, there was no one to care for his wife. To me it seemed like a very stressful situation!
The first thought that came to mind, was wondering about children, surely they would be on hand to support their parents during times of ill-health. Discussing further, I found that they have three sons! With one living interstate, while two others live in Sydney, although residing about an hour away. Tom explained that they rarely visit because they are busy with careers and families. It upset me somewhat, to consider what appeared to be a lack of family support.
Wanting to understand Tom more, over time we discussed many things beyond his current predicament. He shared some of his many life experiences and felt contented that he had “lived a fulfilling life”. This included travelling around the world while working his dream job as an engineer. However, he held regret that this career meant frequently leaving his family to accomplish his goals. Being driven by his career, family wasn’t the top priority at the time. Now, being retired and getting older, he feels distant from his children and grandchildren. This meant constrained moments of love and affection. Tom could see that the roles have reversed. His sons are showing the same behaviour as he did when they were children.
At the time this situation made me feel somewhat sad. However, with the benefit of wider experiences and training on empathy, I see this in a different light. It is all part of the cycle of life, the values we project, the experiences we pursue, and our support for others will have circular impact on our lives. This inspires me to be more generous, act with kindness and empathy every day.