As we hunker down to break the circuit of COVID-19 transmission, I wonder if there are some internal ‘circuits’, or ways of thinking and doing, that we need to break too.
The time is as ripe as any other: COVID-19 has surfaced the vulnerable, as well as the vulnerabilities in our society, and shown us just how interconnected we all are. When some of us hoard, others can’t get what they need. When one group battles COVID-19, we are all in it together.
As many of us rally together to do good right now, one question waits to be answered: what happens next? Will anything really change after COVID-19? Will we change after Circuit Breaker is over?
What soul-searching do we need to do, about our relationships with those who are vulnerable among us, such as our elderly, homeless, cleaners, security guards, migrant workers, and gig workers?
How do we see the vulnerable among us?
(Photo by Sarthak Navjivan on Unsplash)
I’ve spent some time working on the ground with a charity serving lower-income households. I’ve come to observe that broadly, well-intentioned people who seek to help tend to have either of the following 2 mindsets: (1) those who see the people first; and (2) those who see themselves first. Each of these mindsets lead to very different outcomes.
Let me illustrate with a story.
Jesus and his disciples (i.e. his team) went to a remote place to take a break. But a large crowd of around 5,000 people followed him there. Jesus was something of a celebrity. He was healing the sick, teaching people about life, and more.
When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion on them. He spent time with them, teaching them.
The issue: it was getting late and people were hungry. There was nowhere nearby to get food, no food deliveries here.
The disciples’ suggestion: Send the people away to get their own food.
Jesus didn’t like the idea. He basically told the disciples: it’s our responsibility to feed the people.
His disciples protested. How? Feeding 5,000 people would cost 8 months’ of a man’s wages. Not possible.
So Jesus got the disciples to find out what the crowd had. They found 5 loaves of bread and 2 pieces of fish.
Jesus took what was crowd-sourced by the disciples and multiplied it to feed the 5,000 people, with leftovers to spare. He fed everyone.
We can think like the disciples: we see ourselves first. When faced with others’ needs, we turn inward and focus on our abilities to solve the issue. Very quickly we conclude that we are incapable of doing anything. Ultimately, our baseline is that it isn’t really our problem. The people are hungry? Let them find their own food.
Or we could think more like Jesus. He saw the people first. And he saw them as his people; the disciples’ people. When your people, your family are hungry, you don’t send them away to find their own food. When we think like Jesus, their needs are our responsibility, we are more likely to go beyond ourselves, and turn towards the people. We go into the crowd, we find out what resources they have, and seek to multiply what they have. And at the end of the day, we find that we have not only fed them, but that we are full too.
Who do we see first?
(Photo by Kit Suman on Unsplash)
Perhaps in this crisis, we are confronted with the question - who are our people? Who are “we”, and who isn’t? Recently, I found it interesting that our country’s leaders chose to highlight the contributions our migrant workers have made to building Singapore. Those among us are a part of us, in more ways than we might acknowledge. Our fates are intertwined - our actions (or inaction) can either build up or tear down each other. We share a common humanity - we are all fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives. Our intertwined stories are there. It’s just how we choose to see them.
What does it look like, in practice, to put people first?
I’d like to suggest that the starting point is to adopt a foundational ethic of many service-oriented professions, that is, to act in the best interests of those you serve.
It’s not about how good you are, or how much you are doing, if you are not acting in their best interests.
What would doing good look like, if we all measured ourselves and our efforts based on whether we are acting in the best interests of the cleaner, the security guard, the migrant worker, or the homeless among us? If we shifted our world views from an inward-focused one (what we can/cannot do), to an other-centred one (what is best for them)?
For one, we need to get to know them, and understand what they consider their best interests to be. We need to start recognising them as people, with pasts, hopes for their future, struggles and strengths, the capacity to be responsible for their own lives and to contribute; not just as people with needs, or as economic units or cogs in our economy.
What does that mean for us, practically?
1. We need to learn to listen.
Who are they, what are they dealing with, what do they hope for? How do they wish to be helped (if at all)? We all need to learn to withhold our own assumptions about them, and give them the space to be heard.
I cannot emphasise the importance of listening enough. When we don’t listen, our efforts, no matter how professional or good our intentions are, will invariably be based on our own perceptions – on ourselves – rather than on the people behind the issues. In business terms, it’s like launching a product or service without any market research. At best, we end up with a solution that might align, to some degree, with the interests of those we serve. At worst, we could completely miss the mark and waste precious resources. The most damaging and unseen effects are however on those we serve – whom we end up silencing, and not truly valuing in our efforts to ‘help’ them.
2. Build bridges of understanding.
The reality is that many of those who are vulnerable do not have access to us, so if we want to truly listen and understand, we must take the first step to move towards them. We can build bridges of friendship with them personally, or listen closely to those who have been journeying alongside them. There is so much diversity in how we can do so – as individuals, with family or friends, through community groups, joining NGOs, or perhaps through work. There is so much strength in our own communities that we can draw from - whether through our friends and families, or through coming together with a group of like-minded people - to help sustain us.
As a community, let us all learn to make room for others. We need to accept them as being a part of us, and be willing to let their stories shape our collective stories, over the comfort of relegating them to the side-lines of our assumptions and fears.
Is there room in our community for them?
(Photo by Zhu Liang on Unsplash)
Post COVID-19, we will undoubtedly have to re-examine our fundamental assumptions and make decisions to address the vulnerabilities - and the plight of the vulnerable - exposed during this season. There are no easy answers. Everyone’s interests must be heard, and taken into account. For those of us who have a voice and the capacity to care, let us learn to seek the best for the least of us - and use our privilege to act for their good.
The Heart of Doing Good is part 3 of a series of 6 articles. They are perspectives written by different team members of Solve n+1 on how we can do good, better.