The Lost Art of Empathy

Time and time again, ‘Humans of New York (HONY)’ will appear on my Facebook news feed and, time and time again, the vastly-popular page will feature the image of a homeless person. At first glance, you note that they look like any of the other unfortunate homeless people that you’ve encountered on your daily commutes to the office or your lectures. However, you then take a few moments to skim through the caption that accompanies the still-shot and find yourself suddenly giving way to a strange sensation that temporarily commandeers your cognitive processes.

We call this empathy.

That caption that you’re reading will tell you the unhappy tale of a scruffy-looking individual who had initially soldiered their way through life, just like the rest of us. They had a few qualifications, a family that they adored, and an ever-so-slightly optimistic plan for their lives, just like the rest of us. It could have been due to a bad decision or simply bad luck, but eventually their blueprint for the future went awry and they found themselves sleeping in bus stops for days on end with nothing but a few blankets to shelter themselves from the cold.

Sad stories such as these do tend to provoke serious thought. What if it had been my house that had been seized because I kept defaulting on my mortgage repayments? What if it had been me who had grown up with abusive parents and, as a result, had failed to ever reach my true potential? Sure enough, when you glance at the comments on such posts, you’ll no doubt see hundreds upon hundreds shower the unlucky character in sympathy and well-wishes.

More significantly, however, many will comment on how they ‘understand’ what the unlucky man or woman is going through. It really strikes me how these people seemingly struggle to contain these floods of empathy when sitting behind their screens and keyboards, but will pass people in similar situations on a daily basis without sparing them a second thought, let alone a smile or comforting gesture, as if they reserve their vast pools of altruism for their daily visits to Facebook.

What really bugs me is how some of these more ‘understanding’ individuals would actually express annoyance or even contempt if their lunch break or grocery run was disrupted by an unfortunate soul seeking some spare change, followed a blunt dismissal accompanied by a sharp look and upturned nose. Do you genuinely believe that you are somehow superior to someone who is out on the streets on the premise that you are still able to just about keep up with your loan repayments, whereas they had just fallen short of your fortunate position? Has materialism really infected our minds to the point where we could genuinely answer that question in the positive?

This whole discussion takes me several years back to when I was raising money for my local Foodbank and was approached by a man who asked why he should donate money to our cause when “the council gives all of these people housing for free.” I’m not even going to bother getting into how ignorant his remark was considering that visual evidence dictates that this obviously isn’t the case. It’s as if he was under the impression that people somehow chose to live out on the streets.

However, his foolish words do highlight that there is a serious emotional disconnect between the general populace and “these people”, as our friend so aptly described them. I’ve rambled on for a few hundred words but what I’m really trying to get at is that it really doesn’t cost you anything to be understanding. There is no price tag for empathy, nor is there an opportunity cost. So, take a walk in the tattered shoes of the unfortunate and recognise the homeless for what they are: 

Survivors – with their own story to tell.

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