There I was, sitting on the cold linoleum floor of a church on Staten Island, crying until my eyes ached. I was 14 years old, on a mission trip to NYC with my church youth group. While I tend to be very critical of mission trips (a story for another post), this week serving in the city drastically changed my young perception of the world around me. That day, I realized for the first time the extent to which I was writing off the homeless and hungry I saw every day in the city. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but something about them was not fully human in my eyes. My task for the day at a local food pantry was to work down the line of people waiting for food, and ask each individual his or her name. I had seen these people sleeping on benches and pushing shopping carts full of belongings, but never looked them in the eyes to fully face their struggles and humanity. But that day, as I scribbled down their names on the list and held simple conversations, I recognized that I had more in common with these neighbors than I realized. My 14 year old self had not connected that each person had stories, mothers, dreams, favorite foods and embarrassing stories to laugh about, just like me. Reflecting later that night with my youth group, I was overwhelmed with shame. Not just shame from treating these people so coldly in the past, but shame from not even realizing what I was doing. To say this realization rocked my teenage world is an understatement, but it’s also an overstatement to think that I have dutifully carried this empathy with me through my life so far.
This time around in New York City, it’s still hard to look into the eyes of the homeless men and women begging for change on the subway or sleeping on the church steps outside of my dorm. It’s hard to know just what to do in the face of this form of suffering, but especially so as I power walk my way across town to help the Presbyterian Ministry advocate to the United Nations for the Human Rights of people across the world.
The prevailing problem I see day to day at my internship around the UN is this constant struggle to put a face to the names of each refugee debated over, hungry child, and casualty of war. If it’s hard to recognize the humanity of a man sleeping at your feet- how much more difficult is it to feel true empathy for a woman you will never meet in a situation you can’t imagine on the other side of the world? But those who advocate for peace and justice try and yank us privileged few out of our well-constructed fortresses of comfort to look into the faces of those who have so much less.
Empathy can be emotionally exhausting. There’s a point when the statistics just turn into numbers punched into a report about casualties on the Mediterranean or the number of malnourished children in South Sudan. But there are those who work hard in UN agencies and NGOs to bring in real refugees to speak in person, and document in-depth the personal struggles of those experiencing humanitarian crisis first hand. It was impossible not to be moved by the video we watched in the General Assembly about a woman negotiating with ISIL terrorists to bring home kidnapped girls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO1r0s2mw1k, or the Palestinian refugees who shared their experiences of living entire lifetimes with an uncertain future. Without seeking out these personal stories, human lives just turn into numbers on a page or another sad face in a news report.
I read an interesting BBC report report on empathy this morning. We are hardwired as humans to feel compassion for others, but in our busy lives these feelings are easy to bury in the face of so much suffering. If you are reading this, you have SO much power. The power to click the tiny red x and stop reading at this very moment. The power to never give a glance to the world around but keep a firm focus on the dinner plans and online shopping that snuggle comfortably in the tabs at the top of the screen. But I encourage you to seek out news reports and focus on one face or a name or a number and imaging just for a moment that person’s last birthday or the last time they hugged their mother.
I apologize that this is not a post with a specific action plan. I don’t have a letter to sign or a cause to give a dollar to, this is rather a call to empathy. To shake yourself a little harder when you hear a news report that makes you shudder and want to look away. The cause may be different for every person- but listen to that discomfort and allow someone else’s pain a little time to sink in
It’s hard to feel empathy when you also feel powerless to help, but that very empathy is always the first necessary step to finding how you can use your many blessings to bring even one person back from the edge of tragedy. Be that the tragedy of a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, another day of walking on an empty stomach in South Sudan, or another night sleeping on the steps of a church at the corner of 31st and Broadway.