After last week’s author visit and presentation from Denis Belliveau, sophomore Sara Z. kindly wrote us a piece on her thoughts…
In our history classes, we are often told that we need to cultivate historical and cultural empathy in order to be informed citizens of the world, and I can think of no better way to do so than by observing. Observation is the act of learning without interfering. Most people think this means stepping back to get a broader view of the situation, and while that often works, the best way to observe is to integrate yourself so fully into your surroundings that your presence and your actions won’t affect what you’re observing. This kind of observation is not something we get to do very often, but it is by far the best way to understand a different perspective. Our guest speaker, Mr. Denis Belliveau, had the opportunity to do that sort of immersion for two years while following the footsteps of Marco Polo.
And what did he learn from all this observation? Did he find anything in common amongst the different cultures? Surely, warlords in Afghanistan don’t have anything in common with monks in Mongolia. We assume this because of the information we have already acquired. We have learned about Buddhist beliefs and rituals in history class, and they sound nothing at all like the ideologies of the gun-wielding Afghans. Sure, they have the same biological makeup, but their historical differences created two completely different cultures that foster two completely different mindsets. Beyond the fact that both groups are Homo sapiens, they can’t have anything in common. Or do they? When asked during the assembly, Mr. Belliveau said that throughout all his travels across Europe and Asia there was one common thread shared by everyone he met. And that thread was kindness and hospitality towards all humans, a sense of kinship with a stranger.
When Mr. Belliveau met with an Afghani warlord to try to obtain safe passage through war-torn Afghanistan, he didn’t know if he would be killed on the spot by any one of the countless rifles propped against the walls. When the travelers handed the warlord a letter they had received from an acquaintance, the man replied, “The man who wrote this is my brother. I will do anything in my power to help you.” To this man, it didn’t matter that the travelers were from America. It didn’t matter what their political ideologies were. All that mattered was that someone he respected had asked him to help these people. They had come to Afghanistan to observe, not to interfere. They came simply as human beings. And for that reason, they were treated kindly.
I think that an essential part of nurturing our historical and cultural empathy is understanding that the people we talk about are all human. Sometimes this sense of humanity gets tucked away in our minds because of more pressing issues that draw our attention to the differences between us. When we target terrorist groups, we can’t worry about the fact that those terrorists are people, too, with lives and families. It’s far more important to take actions in the interest of our safety and for the safety and liberty of other countries.
But most situations are less extreme than that. If we are ever to going to create a world in which everyone understands and respects each other, we need to remember that the people we may disagree with are humans, too. When we establish that in our minds, we can begin to see how their emotions, loyalties, and beliefs may factor into their decisions, culture, and ideologies. When we can remember that they are human, we can remember that they have needs and feelings and a heart. With that in mind, we can truly begin to observe in a less biased and self-righteous way. Unbiased observation can only lead to understanding and empathy. And with understanding, we can find ways to engage that are in everyone’s best interest. All we need is our humanity and an ability to step back, watch, and reflect.
By Sara Z. ’18