A Written Account of Empathy, Or Lack Thereof

One of my first distinctly accessible memories is a distinctly unpleasant one, or unpleasant to access, at least. I am four (five?) years old, helping my parents move into our new home in a less than desirable neighborhood of the Detroit metropolitan area — by “helping” I really just mean trying not to get in their way, or bitch and whine, as is SOP for the deliriously tired and self-centered spoiled child.

It is late (for me, that is, in all likelihood it was just dark) and I remember the night somehow being at once cold and muggy. My father had just driven a UHaul filled with the remainder of our belongings from the last place that we’d inhabited for less than six months — this pseudo-nomadic lifestyle was an annoying habit our family never really managed to kick — and so was overtly cranky and tired and generally unapproachable, which meant in turn that my mother was equally overt in her display of the same moody traits aforementioned.

Being a fairly happy child who never wanted to see his parents anything but, I was very much unsettled by this marital discontent (a tendency I was soon forced to grow out of). And so I’m pissed and I’m sitting and I’m sulking on the stoop, already fed up with the fact that we were having to move again — which meant leaving all my friends and having to make new ones, and just carry on perpetually being “the new kid” — on top of being an only child, and therefore shocked and appalled that my parents were devoting their attention to anything but me.

And so I start to wander — an annoying habit that I never really managed to kick — which is a prodigiously stupid and ill-advised thing for a child to do in the city, let alone that of Detroit. I find a streetlight, jump on and start spinning around it (did anyone else have this totally unexplained compulsion as a kid?). I spin until I make myself dizzy, kind of like you do on a swivel chair (again, why do children do this to themselves?), then hop off and sit down, enjoying the weird sort of high. And when my vision clears, I look up to see a very smelly, disheveled, and poorly dressed black woman.

This served only to startle me. Growing up in Detroit meant early exposure to a predominantly African American community, so I’ve thankfully never shared the comically sad fear of black people that the friends I would later make in private schools almost exclusively harbored. I smile and say “Hello”, pretty stoked that an adult is paying attention to me. She responds in kind, probably just as stoked that anyone was paying attention to her at all.

We get to chatting and I quickly comment on her pungency and ask “why she dresses so funny?”. She laughs and tells me they’re the only clothes she has left, so I take the liberty of offering her some of my mother’s, and lead her to the UHaul. My parents freak the fuck out, yelling at me to get away from her. And I’m like, the fuck, guys? This lady’s nice and needs some clothes…why so rude? The homeless woman begins a practiced routine of begging, asking my mother for any change she could spare for food.

Mom flatly refuses. And I’m like, THE FUCK, GUYS? You are both doctors. Give the poor lady a couple bucks; she clearly needs it more than we do. I start trying to reason with my mother, but she’s not having any of it. So I get pissed, and the homeless woman is crying, so I start crying (literally kicking and screaming). Eventually my father hears the ruckus and comes over and tells the woman in so many words to please fuck off. So she walks away awfully slowly and sadly, looking an awful lot like she’s got nowhere else to go. Stunned by my parents’ callous lack of fundamental human empathy (I mean, come on, you’re supposed to save lives, for Christ’s sake), I don’t speak to them for two days.

One of my more recent accessible memories is similarly unsettling to access.

I am twenty two years old, walking down South Congress in Austin, a city with an estimated 2300 people who accessed services for the homeless in 2013, many of whom are veterans of the Armed Services, most of whom are mentally ill. I just dropped $60 on a vintage pair of leather Beatles boots (which boots are just totally bitching, I might add). I’m walking back to my car, most pleased with this newest acquisition, eager to rock them with all the Lennonly swagger I can muster.

And on my way down SoCo (one of the trendier, posher areas of Austin) I walk by a homeless man, who asks me for any change I could spare for food. Without batting an eye or even so much as looking at him, I dispassionately reply “Nah, man. Can’t help ya”. It doesn’t hit me until I get to the car, but it hits hard. The childhood memory comes rushing back, and I’m stunned by my own callous lack of fundamental human empathy.

A few things have changed since 1995. I know now that I cannot help every homeless person that approaches me, or even a fraction of them. I also know that at least some percentage of homeless persons are addicts, and that any money I provide said persons with would more than likely go up their nose or into their arm. However, there was no excuse — none whatsoever — for my complete disregard of someone so clearly in need.

That said, if I stopped and talked to every homeless woman or man that approached me in Austin, I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time to talk to anyone else. Nevertheless, it was an unhappy realization to face that I am willing to spend enough money to support someone for a week on boots (which boots, again I must stress, are really just the bee’s knees), but religiously abstain from spending a relative pittance on the livelihood of a fellow human being.

While some may consider it unrealistic to think that a single person can solve the world’s problems, none can deny that it is entirely realistic to say that the world is more than able to solve those of a single person. This is not a matter of generosity or other-directedness; it is one of simple empathy, and the moral imperative we all have as humans to exercise it.

The homeless life is not a happy one to lead. I know this, because I’ve lead it. Austin is a beautiful city, and considerably more forgiving to the homeless than many — most, really — other major ones in the world. But no matter how cool or progressive the town, nothing can change the fact that a hand-to-mouth existence in which you don’t know where your next meal might come from or where you’re going to sleep at night is a hugely, unimaginably despondent one to endure.

I spent six months of my life without a home to call my own, two of which were on the streets, and I wish never to do so again. Deprivation from the very barest of necessities breeds a uniquely inescapable despair the likes of which most of us here in the first world cannot even begin to comprehend. And although that doesn’t mean it’s our burden to bear, I do believe that, on some level, it’s our responsibility at least to lighten the load.

This is getting long and preachy, perhaps too long and too preachy to hold your attention, but I can’t help feeling this is an issue that warrants it. Poverty is an enormous and contentious subject to tackle in 1000 words, and I am admittedly ill-suited to tackle it. I am not so self-righteous as to request that anyone give more to those in need than they can truly afford, but I am just enough to request, very humbly, that we at least consider the ramifications of neglecting to try.

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