Thursday, July 28, 2011

Empathy and apathy

One last post before vacation.

I got to thinking about this based on two blogposts. First, at Joanne Jacobs: Teaching Empathy to the 'me' generation (Huh. I thought the Baby Boomers where the "me" generation. Apparently the Millennials or whatever we're calling them are the New Me generation, or maybe the Me-Me generation.)

Then, over at Prof. Mondo's: Whited Sepulchres on a Sunday.

I think these are really discussing the same problem, but from different angle.

Point one: Empathy is good. People that lack empathy, I would call them sociopaths.

However, empathy takes on different forms.

Point two: The poor are always, and will be always, with us.

The sticking point is, what do you do with those poor? In my worldview, you help out with their immediate needs while trying to help them find a way to pull themselves up. (It's good to teach a man to fish rather than merely giving him fish, though if he's so weak with hunger he can't hold the pole...well, you may need to feed him fish for a little while.)

I don't like the idea of people being dependent on the government (especially) long-term. I don't like it when people seem to be taught that they are helpless and hopeless and they need someone to send them a check every month or else they'll starve.

Like the good Professor, I have a problem with people believing we should simply turn over whatever responsibility we have to the poor (the widows and orphans, to use Biblical language) to the government, that by writing that check every April 15 we wash our hands of that responsibility. And that further, we should take an increasingly-large chunk of the income of those who earn a lot, so that we can funnel still more to "the poor."

(I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a high-wage-earner. By global standards, I'm incredibly wealthy: I have a roof over my head, I have clean water to drink - and as much as I need, I have so much food that I have to be careful what I eat lest I gain too much weight, I can control the climate of my house to a comfortable temperature, I have lights I can read by at night, I have a job that gives my life structure and gives me a sense of value to the community... but when you look at dollars and cents, in a U.S. perspective, well, I make about $60K a year. 25% tax bracket. But I don't feel any need to tax the "millionaires and billionaires" any more than what they are paying.... in fact, I'd like to see a lower-percentage, flatter tax, but that's another rant for another time. What I'm saying is, class warfare is ugly and it gets old fast and I wonder if on some level it's some people to justify crimes, as in, "Hey, it's OK to go break into that person's house and take their stuff, because they have more than I do and that's UNFAIR.")

I give money through my church. I have a couple of carefully-chosen charities that I give money on a monthly plan to. When there's a natural disaster, I call up the Salvation Army and make a donation. And it irks me that there are some people who think that that's somehow less effective than the government's redistribution of my earnings, that that shouldn't "count" somehow, that the government is the only way that people get helped.

One of the reasons I give money is for myself. It has a dual purpose. First, I see it as sort of a tangible prayer of thanksgiving, a "Thank You for all the blessings I have, that I can share these blessings with others." But it also reminds me that it's not all about me. Yes, I could spend some of the money that I give away on myself - I could buy more electronic gadgets or more craft supplies or more books. But it's important to remind myself that there are other people out there, I forget that sometimes (we all do), and writing those checks helps me do that.

But the other thing is, I give my time. I teach Sunday school and Youth Group. I've helped out at the local food bank and served meals at the local soup kitchen.

And to be honest: I find that more challenging than I find writing a check.

There are two reasons for this.

First, I'm a busy person. I work full time (sometimes it seems like MORE than full time, especially with AAUW/church duties/CWF/other groups that have evening meetings). I admit sometimes I get resentful when someone makes too many demands on my time. (And when I find myself getting too resentful over too many demands - that tells me I need to take a little time to myself). Giving my time is actually in some ways a bigger sacrifice than giving money is.

Second, I sometimes have a hard time relating to people I don't know well. Especially people in very different walks of life - teenagers, especially teenagers from difficult home situations. People who have been out of work for a long time. (And I admit that it's hard to admit this but:) People who have less education. People who are developmentally disabled (two groups we tend to serve at the soup kitchen). Part of it is just a discomfort with people I don't know well, but part of it is "Oh Lord, what do I say? I don't want to say something that sounds patronizing or that the person doesn't understand or that they can't relate to." But by doing these things, I force myself out of my bubble of comfort, I force myself to confront some parts of my personality I might not like much.

One of the things the minister at my church usually says right before the offering is that God can use our time, talents, and treasures. Meaning that it's not just money that makes the church or the various charity groups run. Time is also needed: people being willing to staff the various Sunday-school classes. People willing to show up and sit at the food bank (sometimes for long periods of time without a customer). People willing to run the dishwasher at the soup kitchen. And it also takes talent: there are certain skills in dealing with children (I am okay with dealing with teenagers; I don't know that I'd be very good working with a class of three and four year olds). Talent in organization. Talent in things like cooking.

Part of it is to remind people that even if they don't have much money to drop in the offering plate, they have something they can share. But also, I think it IS a plea for people to do more than open their checkbooks. (Because, as I said, for some of us, writing a check really IS easier than giving our time, or putting our talents out on display- and maybe being a little vulnerable there - I know there were times that I went into Youth Group feeling like the Talented Teacher and walked out feeling kind of beaten).

And I think maybe the roots of empathy are something more than the little song "Empathy, empathy, put yourself in the place of me" - which is what the piece linked by Joanne Jacobs seems to be trying to do. Make the kids "act" like they are a poor person for a while, the argument goes, and they'll understand them more.

I'm not so sure about that. For one thing, I can see all kinds of problems - make the kids stay a night at a homeless shelter? What if that means "real" homeless get turned away because the place is full? What about some of the emotionally-fragile kids going through this - I suspect I would have wound up curled up in a little crying ball if I had to go through the social-services routine alone, even as just a simulation. And it seems like a waste of money and effort to me, having the kids play-act at being homeless. (As I suggested on there: why not encourage the kids to do volunteer efforts where they are part of the solution, rather than forcing them to deal with the same problems?). And I do think, as Michael Lopez noted, some people may come away from this "experiment" with more contempt for "the poor" than before.

Also, I'd argue, eighteen is kind of late to "begin" teaching empathy - this is something parents need to work with at home. This is something that religious groups (of whatever stripe) can help with. But if a kid comes into college without empathy developed....well, I don't want that kid in my class.

But I think there's a link between having empathy and wanting to help out on a grassroots level - and perhaps, letting the government take over too much of the "widow-visiting and orphan-tending" as Prof. Mondo notes - could reduce the amount of empathy in individuals. I don't know. (I also have to observe: Good point on the Scrooge comment. I get tired of people using that in support of increased taxes and increased governmental "care," when Scrooge's comment (Or rather, the Spirit's retort to it) suggests that workhouses and prisons were an awful, last resort. And they were, of course, governmentally-administered. I'm not saying our government's anti-poverty programs are anywhere near as bad, it's just - they aren't necessarily better than private, NGO, faith-based, whatever, help programs that are out there.

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