Empathy

By Sophie Kadan

20 feet across of me sat an older man. His eyes were dark and sunken, and his greying hair was tied back so tightly that it looked painful. I watched him as he eyed the sidewalk below him and the people around him. He seemed to be fixated on something, furrowing his eyebrows and pouting his lips. Then he looked at me.

I quickly looked down. Time to focus on the task at hand. No interruptions—just me, my overly-sweetened coffee, and my computer. I had been typing away for some time before I heard the man calmly clear his voice.

I looked up from my computer, surprised to see that he was now seated at the table next to me. “I’m so sorry to bother you,” he began, “but can you please call 911?”

I gaped at him, at the lack of urgency in his voice. I looked over at a middle-aged woman seated nearby, whose eyes were just as wide as mine. While we phoned the dispatcher, he revealed important information about himself. His name was Charles. He was 63 years old. The local prison had just released him, he claimed, but it had failed to give him his seizure medication. He had already missed three doses.

“Does he want an ambulance?” the dispatcher asked, with a slight tone of impatience. Charles met my eyes with a look of discomfort. He slowly claimed that he was fine—and it was then that I remembered just how expensive the two-mile ambulance ride would be.

I looked over at his hands, which shook as he tried to hold his drink. “Are you sure?”

Eventually, he agreed, though a hint of regret lingered in his eyes. We then waited. I kept a close eye on him as he effortfully crouched down on the sidewalk, heaving heavily as he tried to balance himself against a brick pillar. I called his sister, who was supposedly expecting him at her house. No answer.

The ambulance arrived ten minutes later. While I returned to my seat, the middle-aged woman looked at me and smiled. “That was nice of you for helping him,” she said.

I chuckled. “What else was I gonna do? Tell him, ‘No’?”

“You’d be surprised,” she replied, her face falling. She then told me of a disabled man she had helped—previously trapped in a snow pile, lying visibly by the open road for hours as cars passed. She told me of a student who was barely conscious at the wheel—sobbing and abandoned, fearful of calling an ambulance because of its cost. She told me stories of people, practices, and politics lacking one fundamental human trait: empathy.

These reminded me of horror stories of my own, stories of human apathy and disregard. I thought of the train conductor who had forced out a homeless woman from his train car, and I remembered the man who had proudly saluted the Nazis at a Black Lives Matter protest. I debated between the concepts of fairness, humanity, and practicality as they applied to such problems—asking, “Will the nature of these ever change?”

Perhaps we will never know the true meaning of empathy, but reflecting on its absence, importance, and impact may give us the closest insight. More than anything, experiences like these highlight that it is empathy that makes us human.