Solving difficult and complex problems is not easy. This is because established techniques can not be used to solve those. There are no ready made formula or equations or methods or fixed viewpoints to sense and address a complex issue. At least that is what I have come to believe through my experience. Instead, as I understand, human qualities play a more important role than processes, viewpoints, methods and techniques.
To my mind, one of the basic human qualities that is needed is empathy. Empathy helps us to be one with the problem. We no longer act as passive, neutral or judgmental observers viewing a problem from a distance or from proverbial ivory towers. Unless we can become one with the problem the problem would continue to elude us. And failing to make any realistic sense of a problem would only spawn superficial solutions that would invariably fail to address the complexity of an issue.
But how to develop empathy? I am sure that there are many ways to do that. However, I find that reading and appreciating poetry is one of the sure ways to develop empathy.
Let us take an example to make it clear. Europe is facing a “refugee crisis.” Leaders of Europe are fighting over it. Their differing opinions are at so much misaligned that the stability of the European Union stands threatened. Now, if someone asks me to think about the “refugee problem” and come up with at least an opinion I would certainly fail to do so. I am far away from the scene. I am not affected. I am not a “refugee” myself. I don’t understand the pain and the reason why people are forced to leave their homes, desperately trying to secure a foothold in a foreign land. Well, I can sympathize with the refuges but at the same time I would be unable to make a proper understanding of the effectiveness of various government policies crafted with the intention to tackle the situation. I can of course decide to read up a lot on the issue to make an informed judgement. Reports appearing in social media, newspapers, journals, reports in form of videos and pictures would perhaps serve my purpose. I can also decide to engage in intelligent dialogues with people who are knowledgeable about the subject. But it would still not help me much. In fact, I have been trying to make sense of the problem through such means ever since the problem surfaced and gained international prominence. But frankly I did not have a clue about the reason or its solution. When my friends wanted to discuss this issue I always felt dumb. So, instead of airing my views I was contend to be a good listener.
Then, one day, I happen to read this poem “Home” by Warsan Shire.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
By now, I am sure that I need not talk one more word about what is empathy and how one can develop this quality if you have felt something stir inside you.
Astonishing, as it is, by the time we come to the end of the poem, both the reason for the crisis and the probable solutions are self evident even though the poet has neither offered a reason nor proposed any possible solution.
That is the power of empathy, which as I have discovered, may be greatly enhanced and sustained through the power of poetry.