Can We Really Understand Others?

by | Nov 4, 2018

We millennials are born in the information age. I always thought that the evolution was mutual, as by the time people who were born after 1980s came in a position to exert their influence, the same happened with information via internet, smart phones and other gadgets. The overall structure of accessing information is beautiful where anyone can know the detail of places and people anywhere in the world. One can process it into their actions as per their will. This has undoubtedly been revolutionary in our daily lives.
The way we have started processing information, specially the emotional side of it, was an area I never really bothered about until I encountered an experience a few weeks back, here in Odisha.

A man bought a shirt, which could be any other regular incident but for me, it wasn’t. As a part of the project on which I am working, my supervisor and I were visiting farm lands in tribal regions of Odisha in order to promote and support organic practices of farming. One of the farmers involved in our project told us how this year, the yield did not meet his expectations and his earning from selling the millet he grew this season, was only Rs 800. Later, we saw the same farmer buying a shirt for Rs 600 from a vendor who gets these items in the village on a bike.

Thinking about it, I feel strange. Why would this make me upset!
Could it be because my urban trained mind could not accept the transaction in which that farmer spent a major portion of his income on a shirt which according to me, wasn’t even of great quality? In my ideal world, he was supposed to utilize that money for other important purposes such as food or education for his children. Also, if we check Fab stores of India or even Amazon, the same millet could have fetched a far higher price such as Rs 120 per kg instead of the meager Rs 20 for which he sold it. I could conclude his choice as irrational because he was not in a position to afford that shirt.

The degree certificate I earned and all the formal education I had received, shouted in my head “Dude! It’s your duty to guide him, show him how to manage money”, and I diligently set out following that voice, but was fortunately careful enough not to pour myself directly onto the farmer. This time I thought I will try to list out the facts from what I heard, saw and observed, rather than directly getting into a manipulative discussion. The end result was the following three points:

  1. The transportation facilities available are minimum here, and expensive for farmers to access nearby market
  2. There are no food processing or storage facilities available to them
  3. He wanted that shirt and so, he bought it
The first two points appealed to my logic and now, I had started thinking about other options for them to access market effectively. At the same time, I was struggling to make peace with the third fact. It was not easy for me to accept his choice when he is struggling almost everyday against nature and the outside world to make a living. But hey, I also couldn’t find any rationality in my decision to leave a job and my home in Kerala to come and live for a year in rural Odisha.
It may not completely wrong to assume that irrationality plays a major role in decision-making and sometimes, it helps us push the monotony of life for one more day. When someone else makes an irrational choice, can we really understand it, or at least feel for them? I always believed that it was foolish to expect anyone to understand us fully and a large majority simply doesn’t care about inner feelings and choices of others. If someone says they feel for it, I doubt as to how much depth they can ever attain.
Resorting to the only option I had, i.e. Google, I found about ‘Realm of Qualia‘, a known term in philosophy as well as in neuroscience. It asks the basic question that if one will ever have a full understanding of a situation unless one directly experiences it.
If the farmer wanted that shirt, the incidents leading to that decision could be infinite for me and subjective only for him. I doubt how fair it would be for me to comment on it, without ever being able to comprehend it completely. Sometimes, I also decide to have a cigarette at the end of a long working day, buy clothes even though I don’t need them or spend all my savings on a road trip, all of which will make sense only to me and yet, I expect everyone else to make rational choices. People who have gone through relationship traumas, may have a deeper understanding of this concept. In this case, maybe that shirt will bring a sense of accomplishment to that farmer or he may just want to wear it on a special occasion or he simply liked it.
There are many things which will make sense only in his universe and it’s better to accept that none of us can ever march into it. Getting a grasp of the limitations of our senses and knowledge is in one way, a relief, in this chaotic life. On the other hand, it makes me question everything that I imagine for others, especially while working in the development sector.
If we are inherently designed to have a limited understanding, I believe, we are also expected to keep the doors open all the time for those unexpected revelations. To think that we will understand things fully, is only largely futile.

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  1. Nikhil K

    Well written.
    Can we really understand others?
    I think we can try and in trying we do reach some common ground.

  2. Swati Saxena

    Felt like peeking into your brain and take a look at that thought process 😛
    “There are many things which will make sense only in his universe and it’s better to accept that none of us can ever march into it.” Love this, applies to all of us!

  3. Simran

    Very appropriate. I’ve come to realise this contradiction of my beliefs with the fellowship world as well! What money is to us is not the same to the farmers…


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