Recently, while browsing YouTube, I chanced upon a classic 90s song I had forgotten: “What It’s Like,” by the band Everlast. Besides being a wonderful piece, it is music that makes people think about each other.
It’s tough for us to drag ourselves out of our mundane day-to-day lives and take a close look at the fortunes of others. But this is the essence of empathy: placing ourselves in another’s shoes and understanding their pain, their happiness, their thoughts and their actions.
Empathy is a quality that is so easy to push aside, especially when we consider ourselves busy, that we have too much to get done right now. But is anyone ever too busy to stop and ask the man with the broken car on the side of the road if he is ok? Lying in our beds years from now, when we look back over our lifetimes, will we be prouder of the day we helped a stranger in need or the day we weren’t 20 minutes late to a meeting?
Think of the last time you were walking through the city and a homeless man asked you for change. What did you do? Many of us answer, “We don’t have any,” and move on, thinking nothing of it. But how did he get there? What has happened in his life that he came to asking a complete stranger for money? For all you know, that could be you in a year from now. It’s not our place to assume about someone when we don’t know facts.
Many of us are taught not to judge others from a very young age. Yet, in our workplaces, homes, schools and more we have assumptions we cling to about our peers because we like to classify people as simpler than they are. Maybe he’s not a terrible jerk, but depressed and in need of help. Maybe she’s not promiscuous, but lonely and in need of someone close. We all make mistakes and have problems. Would you want to be judged solely on your weakest moment?
A lack of empathy pervades our politics and our social dynamics. We live with a belief that everyone should be able to haul themselves up by their bootstraps. What about the single mother with two kids, two jobs and no time? How is she supposed to change her life for the better in a crime-ridden neighborhood? What if I said you can’t marry the man or woman you love because my religion says it’s wrong? These are the problems we face, and our unwillingness to listen and understand harms us all.
It‘s so easy to look at the misfortune of others and simply say, “It’s not my problem.” It’s simple to think they deserved it. It’s human to think of ourselves and our problems first. We are creatures evolved to look out for ourselves and our loved ones first. We are by nature competitive. However, we are also born with the ability for sympathy and selflessness. Our duty as educated, civilized people is to lift up and support one another.
Today it may be you doing the lifting, but remember those who have carried you in the past. Would you be where you are today without their help? Pay it forward.
In the words of Everlast, “God forbid you ever have to walk a mile in his shoes. ‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like.”