What does belonging mean to Akhil Sharma, an American who immigrated from India? Offering help to another opened him up to the realization that the world is greater than himself. Sharma, an award-winning novelist, professor at Rutgers University and New Yorker contributor, offers his humble opinion on opening up to understand the experiences of others.
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We end this week with one immigrant’s take on belonging.
Award-winning novelist Akhil Sharma is a professor of literature at Rutgers University and a contributor to The New Yorker magazine.
He offers his Humble Opinion on opening up to understand the experiences of others.
People ask me all the time if I feel more Indian or more American.
When I was younger, if it were an Indian asking, I would say American. And if it were an American, I would say Indian. I did this because I was wanted to bother people.
I was unsettled, unhappy, irritable. And my taking the opposite of whatever the questioner was, was a way of unsettling him or her, making the person anxious about his own sense of home.
Now, when people ask me the question, I say, I am American.
So what happened? I think I became a little bit less selfish.
I grew up in a family where there was a lot of physical illness. As a child, I spent years in hospitals. I grew up feeling desperate, having the sense that there was only a limited amount of happiness in the world, and I had to grab whatever I could.
In my 30s, after decades of being hurt and angry, I decided, I can’t go on like this. I have to change. I have to change in every possible way.
I remember, one Monday morning, I was in the elevator of my apartment building, and I was going down, and a woman got in, and I asked her how she was doing. “Not well,” she said.
Mother of God, I thought, I have my own problems.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, because this was the polite thing to say.
“My son, he’s a paranoid schizophrenic. He’s 13, and he thinks the IRS is after him. I had to put him in the hospital yesterday.”
Mostly, what I felt at that moment was annoyance. This woman had a real problem and, in my heart of hearts, I just wanted to get back to thinking about myself.
I asked her if she wanted me to go with her to the hospital. I asked this because I had decided I would try to think a little bit less about myself and a little bit more about others.
As I asked this, though, I thought, please God, please, say no.
“Yes,” the woman said. “Thank you. That would be great.”
Unexpectedly, I felt enormous relief. It was as if space had opened up around me.
Every time I have given help when I have felt I needed it myself, I have had the same sensation, sometimes quickly, sometimes in a little bit. But there is space around me, that I have more options than I think.
It is generosity which reminds us we’re more than our problems.
What does belonging mean? It means feeling safe. It means feeling accepted. It has nothing to do with what country you were born in or your parents were born in.
The easiest way to feel safe is to offer patience, offer help. When we do this, we’re forced to step out of ourselves, and we’re reminded that the world is greater than our imagination.