Wondering towards empathy

I recently found myself behind schedule and just a bit lost. The unexpected support of a stranger got me back on track. Was I the beneficiary of empathy, sympathy, or compassion? I leave that to the reader. The story is a quick read, with a little food for thought. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:


Story: Running into empathy

I recently went to Columbia/St. Mary’s hospital to bring my wife home after having her gallbladder removed. After getting off the bus at a busy intersection and crossing the street, I missed the turn that would lead me to the hospital entrance. The hospital complex takes up the majority of a city block and I found the many driveways surrounding the complex to be confusing. I was getting a bit anxious about losing my orientation and delaying Helen’s return home. As I walked, I was asked by a person who identified himself as being homeless if I had some money I could spare. I ignored his question and asked if he could help me find the entrance to the hospital. As we walked together I learned that Aaron’s relationship with a woman who was involved with drugs and sex work left him in a precarious housing situation. I also learned that Aaron didn’t really know where the main entrance to the hospital was. After an explore that took a few twists and turns, Aaron got me where I needed to go. Aaron laughed when I told the person at the front desk that Aaron was my body guard. I don’t think the person at the desk was impressed. Before we parted I gave Aaron the $5 I had in my pocket. I felt it was the least I could do for a person who stepped up to make a difference without question of the commitment being made or the benefit to be gained.

I could reason that our engagement was transactional rather than empathetic but that doesn’t speak to the subtlety of the encounter. I ignored Aaron’s request for money. Aaron responded to my request for help without question. Maybe he understood what it feels like to be lost. Maybe the fact that I was going to a hospital led Aaron to infer a sense of urgency in my request. He may have been sympathetic to an old, blind, guy who had lost his way. I don’t know. Conversely, I don’t usually give money to people on the street. Aaron had helped me out when I needed help. The $5 was just sitting around doing nothing. I easily imagined Aaron would find a good use for $5 sooner than I would.

Lessons learned

My initial engagement with Aaron was an exchange of needs we had at the moment. We didn’t spend any time evaluating who’s needs were greater or lesser. My need was more urgent but not necessary more important than Aaron’s. Aaron deferred to my need without knowing if his need would be addressed.

Emotion researchers generally define empathy as, “The ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Based on this definition it seems that Aaron was practicing empathy while my engagement had a transactional odor to it. I like to think I was just sharing with a fellow traveller along the way.

Applying the lessons

Empathy or sympathy or compassion are often exhibited in response to a situation that serves as a trigger. Here are a few questions that came to me as I composed this essay:

  • What triggers me to engage with others in a selfless manner?
  • How do I empathetically engage while maintaining the dignity of others?
  • When am I acting out of empathy versus sympathy or simply engaging in transactional exchange?




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