I wrote this for Kenan Institute of Ethic’s Encompass Magazine last fall as an extension to my original blog “Rubiksu” and felt it would be appropriate to add it to this blog.
Buying a little bit of food for a homeless, hungry boy is a common occurrence. It is an act of humanity and of kindness, and one that any decent human being would undertake. Anamika, my DukeEngage partner, and I felt sorry for Ramu at once. As college students working with economically underprivileged kids around Ramu’s age for the past several weeks, we were torn to see this young boy without food, friends, or education – at least this is how we imagined his predicament – and bought him snacks from a nearby food stand. However, simply buying food for Ramu didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to see him eat the food, so I pressured him into taking a few bites before I left. My motives for this were reasonably well-intentioned: I was concerned that someone would take the food away from him and preclude any benefit I may have provided for him. It was my care for the boy that caused me to impose myself on him, and on any other day, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
But Ramu’s reaction at being asked to eat in our presence immediately caused me to reconsider my actions. There was a great deal of awkwardness, even fear – certainly not gratitude – in his expressions and actions. He never made eye contact with me, playing instead with his Rubick’s cube. I assured myself that my agenda was unerring; I did not budge until he took several bites. Those few morsels, though, came at a steep price.
Over the next few days, I couldn’t get Ramu out of my head. I replayed those few minutes with him over and over in my mind until I finally realized what had really happened. In my obstinate rationale, I overlooked the fact that I put Ramu in a terribly uncomfortable situation – I’d subjected him to my will, assuming that my motive to feed him, however well intentioned, mattered more than his desire for me to leave. A similar incident is explored in great detail by Robert Coles in his book The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. Coles writes about a man, Alan, who, in his struggle to bring equality for African Americans in the South by encouraging them to exercise their voting rights, scorns a poor tenant farmer’s concerns that he would get shot were he seen voting. Although he was working to bring rights to the farmer, Alan rebuffs the farmer’s uneasiness at the possibility of leaving his family without a breadwinner. Alan later realizes, however, how he disregarded the farmer’s needs in his attempt to help him: “I looked myself in the mirror…I realized how snotty I’d been with him…while I was talking with him I dismissed him in my mind both psychologically and intellectually. (191)” Alan’s story highlights the difference between charity and immersion or engagement: charity creates a subconscious hierarchy where the people being helped are almost inferior to those helping; immersion or engagement allows for a level playing field such that the person helping is instead a server who is simply providing a service to another human being.
Like Alan, in my quest to ensure Ramu ate the food I thought he so desperately needed, I neglected one of his rights. My motives were selfish: I was willing to push too far to make sure that I felt helpful, even if it meant (although at the time I didn’t know it) shattering a young boy’s – and his brother’s — dignity. Ironically, my fear that Ramu wouldn’t benefit from the food made me go too far, and Ramu was in all likelihood hurt more than helped by my actions.
What would I do if I was presented with this situation again? Quite honestly, I don’t know. Discussions with my mentor and professor Leela Prasad helped me understand that for true civic engagement to occur, first, one needs to be able to honestly examine one’s own motives and intent, and second, share an understanding with so-called “recipients” about needs and forms of collaboration. This episode with Ramu highlights for me how difficult it is to expunge a selfish motive and come to shared understandings. Only in retrospect have I been able to see that my perception of Ramu’s hunger and attempt to alleviate it may in fact have deprived him of his sense of self-worth.
Should I ignore Ramu’s hunger? Should I be the one to prioritize his physical necessities over his emotional ones (and force him to act in accordance with my priorities)? Or is there a viable alternative in the middle? I do not have an answer to the last question, but I have learned that it is important to keep asking.