As I sit down to write this article, I am reminded of a story I read a few years ago about a prominent dermatologist who had a downtown office and a suburban office. Rather than driving one of his expensive cars to his downtown office, he rode the express bus from his luxury condominium in air-conditioned comfort.
It was a beautiful warm day in June, and a young woman got on the bus a stop or two after his. This woman was nicely dressed for work. She might have been just a few years older than his daughter, now a college sophomore.
At some point, he looked up from his newspaper and was drawn to the back of her neck. He saw a suspicious lesion that had all of the characteristics of a serious skin cancer. He was tempted to walk up to her and introduce himself, even to present his card and advise her to see a doctor, but he talked himself out of it.
He went back to reading the financial news. About a year and a half later, he was riding the same bus and noticed a young woman wearing a covering on her scalp. She was pale and thin and had the look of a person undergoing chemotherapy. He looked more closely at her face. It was the same woman.
“Oh no,” he thought. “Oh God no.” He would be haunted by his “choice” to not act for many years after. In thinking of her, he always thought of his daughter. That day, he had the power to reach out to someone and make a difference, but he turned away.
The story above is dramatic to be sure, and I am not suggesting we have the ability to get medical degrees and diagnose on a bus, but we are far more powerful than we think in making a difference in the lives of others.
I have also learned that telling someone to “get involved” is easier said than done these days. While the case above happened many years ago, the “empathy problem” is growing by leaps and bounds. I have seen people virtually glaze over when I suggest that to feel better about themselves they might want to help someone worse off who needs a helping hand.
Psychologists confirm that empathy is in short supply. Psychologists also point to social media, video games and violent movies as prime culprits in the decline of empathy, but there are also other contributors.
Compassion, Not Connection
I once wondered how social media, for example, could affect empathy. I’m not wondering any longer. Recently, my wife logged on to Facebook, and as she scrolled down, she came across an interesting post. It was an image of a young woman in her running outfit. Her comment:
“Granny’s ticker landed her in the hospital. She needs to eat better LOL. I ran a 5K fun-run to send out happy feelings. I kicked butt.”
And the comment:
“What was your time? I’ll run it next year too LOL.” Oh yes, three happy faces and a thumbs-up emoticon followed the comment. My wife shared this with me, and I admittedly read the post and comment for several minutes.
However, we should not just blame social media or even violent movies. Empathy is a shared experience, and it must be taught. Empathy must start in the home, and it needs to be reinforced. For example, in Pittsburgh last winter I saw a young father and his two children shoveling the snow from an elderly woman’s sidewalk. The kids had “little baby” shovels, and they obviously didn’t contribute much to the snow removal, but they were cultivating empathy. I saw a similar situation outside of a supermarket in Winston-Salem. A disabled man was struggling to load a large grocery order into his car, and a mom and her two teenaged boys immediately came to his assistance.
The Greatest Reward
Doing good for others is its own reward. There should never be a prize for people painting the house of someone in need, or cutting the lawn of a person who is sick or running an errand for someone too weak to do so. Empathy demands that we see with the eyes of another, listen with the ears of another, and feel with the heart of another. How you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you.
Here is the magical thing about cultivating empathy. Whatever is given out is given back. A couple I know, somewhat lonely, loved dogs but couldn’t have a dog because they were allergic. Their neighbor was the manager of a high-end store, and he worked incredibly long hours. The manager loved his dog, and he was frantic letting a stranger pet-sit. They formed an alliance. Without an expectation of reward, the couple cared for the sweet dog by day, the dog’s owner was thrilled, and the dog was content.
All around us, there are opportunities for us to practice empathy and to really care for “the other.” I have heard people say, “I tell it like it is, and one thing about me is at least you know where I stand.” My experience has taught me that our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart rather than a piece of our mind. Instead of putting others in their place, put yourself in their place. No one ever heals himself or herself by wounding others. In the world full of people who couldn’t care less, be someone who couldn’t care more. Be a difference maker!