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Stuck in Empathy


I walked through my neighborhood, reveling in the arrival of brisk fall evenings. In true New York City fashion, I beat a path to my destination while my eyes rapidly scanned the many faces I passed. A confused looking elderly woman walked by me, pinching the collar of her light jacket together to protect her neck from the chill as best she could. My hands instantly flew to my own neck where my roommate’s scarf was carelessly wrapped. I felt for this woman and wanted to share my warmth with her, a scarf and a smile. But I remained rooted to the sidewalk, offering myself many valid reasons to continue on my way. Why did I prevent myself from reaching out to this stranger?

This is not the first time I have felt empathy for a stranger and chosen to do nothing. I pass multiple strangers everyday asking for money, food or even just eye contact. But there is always a reason I should just keep walking: “I don’t have cash”, “He might use my money for drugs”, “She could be mentally unstable”, “I feel ashamed”, or in the case of the elderly lady, “This is not my scarf to give” (my roommate is probably relieved that I stifled my spirit of generosity in this last case).

Psychological research offers some suggestions as to why I feel, but am so often unmoved.  A 2011 study entitled Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering, by C. Daryl Cameron and B. Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, suggests that when people are overwhelmed by increased suffering, they are more likely to regulate their empathetic response and are therefore less likely to take action to help those in need.

This study does rings true in my situation and I think for many others as well. It's easy to let the suffering of numerous others–and even our own–overwhelm us and, as a result, we do nothing. How can we possibly feel like we're making a difference?

It’s true, one day a week or once a month serving at a soup kitchen or visiting the elderly might be just a small drop in the bucket. But if that small drop–just one day, just one person's life–makes the world better, is that not enough?

Perhaps if I looked at things through a smaller lens, I would not have found myself rooted to the sidewalk, watching the old lady with no scarf walk by me without a word.

Image via Maria Ramirez.

chill out music

Monica Gabriel

the bachelor, reality show