What is empathy?

Image copyright: everydayaperture.com

It was one of my first visit to New York City. I was there on a short academic trip and very poor by dollar standards. I was absorbing everything in, trying to inhale as much as I could, not ready to let go any time soon.

I was most fascinated by the diversity of people- people of all shapes, sizes, colours and skins. Any reservations I had had before of not fitting in, faded away. Everyone was a misfit; it was a homogeneous society of heterogeneous people. I blended right in.

Yet, even in the mixture of misfits, there still was spillage. Those drops of people who didn’t belong. The homeless. I have no other description of them with my training in being politically correct from the States. These ‘misfit-ed’ misfits, hid in every corner one may look, to find them.

The out-of-work veterans, the away-from-home drifters, the struggling artists, were the few I did identify from the cardboard plaques that they held. I may be wrong, these were unverified observations; and the purpose of this rambling isn’t even about who they were, but who they were to me.

In India, where I come from, beggars and shelter-less people are abundant. Its an easy Google search to find out just how many. They are enough to ignore, for they are a community in themselves- homogeneous. You think to yourself, this is poverty, this is how it works. You give pocket change to some when they come begging, without a second thought. You shoo them away when you’re feeling rather numb. There is no obligation- that’s how you’ve lived. You feel empathetic towards a few, but mostly you convince yourself that they are drug-addicts or bums or frauds or worse.

We’ve been raised with the notion of class divisions. The sweepers, the shop-owners, the rickshaw-pullers, the business men, the middle men; the list is endless. They are a heterogeneous mix of a homogeneous people. They are further sub dived by the conventional literacy standards, home localities, languages etc.

So, in contrast, America was absurd to me. Not to diss either society, it is how it is.

All this, to question one thing, what is empathy.

My biggest dilemma on a daily bases was during my numerous subway trips. The veterans, the drifters, the artists- that came and went, asking for money for the various reasons. All had solid stories, and most did seem earnest. But how was I, as an outsider, supposed to judge them or their needs. To me, they were literate, often well dressed and brave for having to deal with whatever they did.

It was unimaginable for me to be them. In an advanced, efficient, powerful, abundant society, they still needed to beg.

And here I was, technically poor in this rich country, squirming to decide if I should give them something of my tiny daily budget.

Whether I did or not, is irrelevant. It was the guilt either way. If I did give them even that one dollar, I felt I robbed my own country of the exchange rate that would have fed ten people; if I did not, I’d question how else was this person to survive this dreadful economy.

Empathetic in this country, am I apathetic in my own?

Of course, there was also the question of self sustenance. Though, maybe if I had enough to give, I would never have had to examine it to begin with.

So, my question to the world is, what is empathy and what are its limitations? Are we missing the key ingredient in our quest to be empathetic? Is empathy culture specific, which really just disregards for its existence in the first place?

Image copyright: everydayaperture.com

Originally published at medium.com on February 18, 2015.

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