THE TRIAD of EMPATHY.
It was a fabulous cruise of the Caribbean – the stuff of dreams. I was looking after Shand on the trip. He was quadriplegic and now ventilated, lacking a little in confidence, and trying to find his way in society again. Believing, erroneously, that he would not live for long, he wanted to make the most of what time he had remaining.
There were many places he was unable to leave the ship, because of the differential between the ship and the dock. Eventually, the Cruise Ship stopped at Cartagena, Columbia, and at this port we were informed that we would have access to the docks with the wheelchair and would be able to visit the country. Shand was anticipating this visit with great pleasure, although we had been warned against taking any valuables ashore, as there was a high crime rate. We therefore took minimal cash, and no cameras or jewellery. We also realised that transport would be a problem with an electric wheelchair, and therefore had decided to walk into the town rather than try to access local transport.
Once we had walked the length of the docks, we came up against an unexpected barricade – a human barrier of extremely determined taxi drivers, all on a mission to take us into town. None seemed willing to understand that we could not use a saloon car with an electric wheelchair: yet, until we chose one of them to take us into town, we were not to be allowed access to the streets. They were all offering transport: we were not allowed to pass. My frustration mounted, as time passed and our way our way was blocked until we accepted a lift – which was clearly physically impossible. I tried repeatedly to explain that we merely wanted to be on our way, but this produced a clamour of voices, all insisting that each one could meet our needs.
Eventually, one man stepped hesitantly forward. “I know what you want” he stated.
By now, I was slightly short on patience, and rather ungracious in my retort:
“You DO? What do I want?”
“You want to walk to Cartagena” he replied simply, and to my great relief. Someone understood that we could not use what was on offer.
“I understand.” he continued. “I know my people, and I will walk with you.”
Immediately, there was a response from the other taxi drivers.
“Yes! Go with him! He is a good man!”
The barrier melted away, once we had accepted his offer. Through the day, we came to know this man and to value him. Everywhere along the way people hailed him and waved, and he was obviously a well known face.
When I needed to purchase batteries for the camera, or other essentials, he escorted me. He employed various people for a few moments for a small amount of money, to look after Shand, knowing that it was essential that Shand was safe. Someone washing his car would be asked to help, or a street vendor. In this poor country, everyone was happy to assist for even a few coins.
Our guide asked where we wanted to have lunch. We replied “just something simple”, not realizing that we would be taken to a cafe where the stools were screwed to the floor. A lone tourist would never have ventured in. We took a window seat and the steak was wonderful (though very large). It was also very inexpensive – I paid approximately £7 for food and drinks for three – and the service excellent. We found it impossible to finish our portions. Our guide waited for a few moments, and then pointed through the window to a man standing disconsolately on the street corner.
“Do you see that man?” he asked tentatively, not quite certain how to phrase his request.
We nodded, curious. He decided to tell it as it was.
“He has just had his fifth child and cannot find work. Could I give him some of the meat you don’t want?”
Of Course -if he wanted it – if he would accept it.
The man was called over, and we offered the remains of our meal with some embarrassment. The result was profound. I have never seen such gratitude – or so many tears of relief – before or since. The day became a lesson in what can happen. For six hours, under a blazing sun, our guide stayed by our side, walked with us, told us of his country and watched over us, constantly on the lookout for where he could make a difference.
I have no doubt that those who took a taxi into town had an enjoyable day, but they did not receive the education we did; they did not see, nor were they shown, how to meet need. They spent money and had lovely meals – but no-one saw the Cartagena we did: or such raw emotion on being able to assist directly.
Our fellow passengers heard our tale with disbelief and, dare I say, envy? We were telling stories into the evening, and had them enthralled. But what was most difficult for them to understand was that not only had we been willing to walk that distance, but we had found someone to walk with us
Shand voted it the best day of the holiday: simply because one man HEARD, UNDERSTOOD, and was willing to alter his BEHAVIOUR (in this case, walk instead of drive) to meet the needs of another.
Everyone who had formed the barricade was trying to help us, but the help was not suitable. When we tried to tell them, they merely shouted louder. It required the ability to see that we were not being difficult: that there was a problem. Then it all came down to
LISTEN: UNDERSTAND: ALTER BEHAVIOUR.
Voicing our frustration and telling of our difficulties gains us nothing if the comprehension is not there that will promote the change in behaviour.(After all, these taxi drivers were all offering transport, that they believed we needed……)
You KNOW you have been heard when someone changes their behaviour: when the barrier comes down; when the way is clear.
Finally, you can see past the barricade.
That is the acid test: that is the perceptive man.
©Linda Jane McLean