I was driving the other night with my kids to a local restaurant. It was rush hour. We hit a very busy intersection and there on the street corner, like most big cities in America, was a homeless man.
His sign read: Anything Helps.
My son noticed him first. He is 7 and has a heart the size of Texas.
Son: Dad, why don’t we help him?
Me: Well it’s really busy right now and he’s across the street. We would have to find a place to park the car, then have to get out in the cold, cross through the busy intersection, and I really don’t have any cash on me.
Son: Dad, we could always buy him a meal from the restaurant or share our leftovers if we have some with him.
Me: That’s a great idea. We will see. If he’s still there after dinner maybe we can stop.
I am literally thinking of every reason NOT to help this man. Every excuse in the book. To make matters worse, I am doing it in front of my children.
This is a son who for his 7th birthday party along with 3 other boys, decided to forgo getting gifts and instead had guests bring a new blanket to donate to the local cancer center.
This is a son who on Christmas Eve day, spent much of his time setting up beds and making bookmarks for the 50+ homeless men who would be staying the night at church.
He literally fell asleep in my arms during the service because he was so exhausted from all the work he had done earlier in the day.
And here I am making excuses about why I can’t help someone in need.
And here I am trying to design empathy-based learning experiences for my students as a big part of my job. I’m trained in human-centered design. I talk a good game about the importance of empathy and the power that empathy has to change our world for the better.
Apparently, talking is about as good as I can do. What’s that saying again? Do as I say, not as I do?
Somehow over time, I’ve become desensitized to some of the need in our world. I’ve forgotten the purity of a child’s heart that doesn’t take into account excuses or hesitations for being in an uncomfortable situation.
A child sees a need and wants to help. Simple as that. It’s beautiful. It’s pure.
As adults, we often see a need, and then think about all the ramifications of trying to fulfill that need. We get so caught up in the negativity of the situation that we become blind to empathy.
Empathy is hard, incredibly hard.
Empathy isn’t something you can teach.
You can’t force people to be empathetic.
You can’t pay lip service to empathy and hope it sticks with your students or yourself for that matter.
When we try to frame empathy for others, we always start with this statement:
Empathy is putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
It’s a fine definition but I think truthfully, it’s much much deeper than that.
I like Brene Brown’s definition best:
“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
Plain and simple, empathy forces us to be engaged while sympathy doesn’t.
It’s easy to sit in our cars and try not to make eye contact with the person in need. Yes, I feel bad for him or her, but I don’t want to connect with them. I’m sympathetic.
It’s also easy to think that what we might do for that singular person, at that singular time, on that singular day, won’t make a dent in solving the problem. So I feel bad for the person, but don’t believe what I can do will benefit them beyond that moment. Sympathy.
I sit here tonight rocked to my core. I want to be a dad who models what empathy looks like and serving others to my kids. I want to be a teacher who models and enables students to be empathetic changemakers in their school, community, and world.
So tonight, instead of excuses or trying to rationalize why we can’t help others around us, trying to do something good for someone else. It doesn’t have to cost you a ton of money, it doesn’t have to change the larger societal problem, it doesn’t have to be noticed by others, because as the wise homeless man on the street corner said: