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What Really Makes a Difference?

The Girl with the Turquoise Scarf

How does helping others produce transcendent empathy?

Lower caste Nepali girls from remote regions who have been awarded scholarships to support their education

I can barely catch my breath. For the past half hour we have been snaking our way up a narrow trail leading to a stupa, a Buddhist shrine, perched high over a Himalayan village. I turn and look downward noticing with relief that I'm not the only one who stopped to rest: there are 55 girls strung out behind and ahead of me, the youngest 10 years old and the eldest her late teens. They have all been transported here from their villages across Nepal, each of them supported by a scholarship to keep them in school.

We have spent the prior week conducting home visits, consulting with parents and teachers, awarding new scholarships, and providing supplies and resources for the children. We have been mentoring them and helping them to support one another, given the challenges they face with poverty, catastrophic illness in their families, and often an abandoned parent. For many of the girls, this is the first time they've ever left their villages and some traveled for three days to arrive at our location. The girls from the plains or jungle have been mostly terrified by the strange environment of the mountains. They are climbing the steep incline in flip flops or plastic shoes. In spite of our efforts to help girls from the various groups to interact with one another, they are mostly staying close to friends. As I try to breathe deeply and gather my energy for the climb to the summit, I think about the morning's activities. We had arranged the girls in small groups, each from a different village. They had been asked to share something in their lives about which they felt pride, as well as some difficult struggle they were facing. Since most of the girls are from the "untouchable" caste, it was not surprising that many shared economic hardships. Most of them lived in small huts in which their families slept together on the floor. I also knew well about the the challenges they faced as girls in a country in which they have few opportunities for advancement, especially living in such remote areas. But I was surprised by how many of the girls had lost parents, some from disease, many from abandonment, and one father was eaten by a tiger! Others had fathers who were alcoholics or incapacitated. As they were telling their stories, the girls were trying to hold back tears. Me too. I was just so amazed by their courage and resilience.

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I continued up the steep trail and noticed one girl sitting on a rock shivering. She is quite striking although very quiet; in the time I've known her we have barely spoken. I recognize her as one of the girls from a jungle village. I ask her name, "Timro nam ke ho?" but she only gives me a shy smile and looks away. 

I sit next to her on a rock and offered her my jacket to cover her shoulders but she shook her head. She was obviously embarrassed by the attention. I noticed another dozen girls further along the path who were watching us carefully. Like I feel so often in these situations in a strange land, I wondered if what I was doing was culturally appropriate. "Please," I insisted, "you must wear this jacket." I covered her and she met my eyes for the first time. It was then that I noticed how carefully, almost compulsively, she kept rearranging her turquoise scarf to cover the right side of her face. It was almost as if she was hiding something.

Once we both gathered our strength, we continued walking up to the top of the hill and I lost track of her for awhile. The girls were running around, screaming and yelling, most fascinated of all by the pine needles hanging from the trees. The Himalayan peaks were stretched across the horizon but it was the tree branches that still commanded the most attention; the girls placed them on their heads as makeshift hats.

It was while descending to the bottom that I noticed the girl with the turquoise scarf continued to hold the garment across her face. Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I asked her if she would mind removing the scarf so I could see her face. I could tell immediately that she was mortified by my request and the other girls started to gather around us. I felt like I had no choice but to proceed with the request. "Please," I insisted, "could I see your face?"

Slowly, reluctantly, the girl allowed the scarf to unravel. I was horrified to see that her cheek was completely swollen and pus-filled with all kinds of nasty colors. My first reaction is that someone had struck her but she then explained to me that it was some kind of skin infection that had been getting worse over time. It was clear to me that without some kind of intervention, this girl would not only become permanently disfigured but might very well die.

I called over her teacher, as well as other adults who had been helping to chaperone the children. "Look at her face," I called out to them. "We have to do something!" They looked concerned but just shrugged. What could be done? In a country in which 90% of the population has no access to regular health care, most injuries and diseases had to run their course--or heal on their own.

I insisted that the girl receive medical care, that she be taken to doctor, a dermatologist, who could lance the wound and provide antibiotics to kill the infection. But I was told that was much too expensive, especially to consult with a specialist. Then there were the transportation costs and money needed for the drugs. Another shrug.

"What would all that cost?" I asked. "I will pay for it. We must get her some help."

I was told this would cost as much as 10,000 rupees, which may sound like a lot until you do the calculations and figure this is about $14. For less than the price of a single meal back home I could save this girl's face, if not her life!

"You are a god," the girl whispered to me with awe.

I didn't know what to say to that other than to shake my head.

"You are my god," she repeated. I could tell she meant it. This was no idle complement.

I walked away. I fled. I didn't want her to see me crying. Once alone, I just completely lost control, sobbing in a hoarse voice I barely recognized as my own. I was scaring myself with the raw power of the emotions. I've done a lot of good things in my life. I've helped a lot of people as a therapist or teacher or supervisor. I look for opportunities every chance I get to help little old ladies cross the street, lost tourists to find their destinations, or anyone else I meet to find what they're looking for. But of everything I've ever done, nothing seemed to come close to what I could do to help a young girl just by noticing that she kept covering her face.

So, what's the moral of this story, the theme that I'm exploring way beyond a single gesture of altruism?

Look into the eyes of this girl. Look into the eyes and open your heart to anyone who needs help and doesn't know how to ask for it. We are often so obsessed with ourselves, with our own little worlds, with the things we wish to possess, with the money we want to make and the accomplishments we wish to achieve, that we often lose sight of what we are really doing here on this planet. I had a discussion last night at dinner in which someone was complaining about the high inheritance taxes that "punishes" our offspring when we wish to leave them our estate and possessions. I wondered aloud what the consequences would be if nobody was allowed to inherit anything, if every generation had to earn their own way, if we were all encouraged to distribute our worldly possessions not just to those in our family or "tribe" but to those who were most in need. Of course, I realize this will never happen; we are just too attached to the idea of keeping things in the family, making it a priority to help those of our direct lineage. But as an alternative, what would happen if each of us looked more carefully around us to identify those who are covering their faces in shame or despair? What if we reached out to others more often to extend ourselves in loving and compassionate ways?

This isn't just about throwing money at causes, or simply making financial donations. I'm cynical enough to know that because of the corruption in the developing world, the high cost of overhead and operating expenses, only a small fraction of charitable gifts ever reach those they were designed to assist. The money our organization provides to support the education of at-risk girls in Nepal is absolutely crucial to their survival and welfare, but just as important are the relationships we develop with each of the girls and their families. Most of our scholarship recipients never dreamed it was possible for them to become anything other than wives or farmers, that is, until they met professional women from around the world who showed them what was possible. That's the thing with "transcendent empathy:" the influence flows in both directions. Most of our own volunteers and team members also never dreamed it was possible to be so happy and content with life while having so little. We come home from our visits to Nepal determined to devote ourselves to things that matters so much more than mere ambition and achievement--friendships, family, creative pursuits, and yes, service to others. 

Nobody can ever dilute the power of extending yourself to someone in need. Sure people need money and resources, but they also need support, respect, caring, and mentoring. The next time you see someone with a "turquoise scarf," that is someone who is suffering but who doesn't know how to ask for help (or is too ashamed to do so), give something of yourself to make a difference. I think you'll discover that you not only helped someone in need but you also enriched your own life.

 

Jeffrey A. Kottler, Ph.D., is a professor of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, author of 80 books, and President of the grassroots organization Empower Nepali Girls.

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