personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

Empathy: Life lessons from Boy 2

There was a wine and cheese donor recognition a few days ago, hosted by the organization I work for, Equitas. I went there with my son, Boy 2. He was invited because he'd donated most of his birthday money to a fund for our program participants in Haiti who'd suffered from the devastating earthquake back in January. as usual, he managed to be both humble and attention-seeking, working the crowd at the right moments.

We left the place just after 7 that night and made our way to the train station. About a ten-minute walk, walking first through the streets of Old Montreal, then onto the larger boulevards of the downtown core. My son walked with his head craned the whole time, amazed and unused to the newness of the city; we live in the suburbs, and I've only been downtown with my children a few times. 

At one point we stopped at a street corner, waiting for the signal to cross (at a minimum I feel I have to set a good example in front of the kid). Across the street, a homeless man, one I've seen many times before, crusted, layered in heaps of filthy coats, a grocery cart by his side. He was fishing through a garbage bin. found nothing, crossed the street to the bin next to us. My son had been talking incessantly the whole time we were walking (he typically is mute only during sleep). As his eyes fixes upon the homeless man, he grew silent, turned red in the face, pushed his body close to mine, then whispered something inaudible to me. I bent down and asked him to repeat what he'd said, and he asked me what that man was doing. I told him he was looking for food. Tears formed in my son's eyes.

"Why does he have to look for food?" followed by "Why doesn't anyone help him?" The rawness of my son's empathy left me wondering what to give as an answer. I can't remember what I answered, but whatever I said, I'm sure it wasn't good enough (for me nor for my son). The signal to walk appeared and we walked away. My son remained quiet until we approached the train station.

I mentioned what happened to a friend of mine the day after, and he said that, as adults, we've been conditioned to seeing men like that around the city so much that we don't pay any attention to them. Or perhaps we do, but we consciously avoid them. Either way, I need to be reminded more often by people like my son who react more immediately, more strongly, more emotionally, and with more kindness to others whose lives are a far cry from what anyone would consider as living in human dignity.



2 comments :

Jennifer said...

I have written about our response to the homeless on more than one occasion. What strikes me is that, very often, just looking at them, just responding to them is enough. I think one of the most tragic things about these people is that we make them invisible. Just imagine what that might be like, what that must do to one's psyche, one's sense of self.

Paul McAdams said...

Well said. Even if we cannot help those in need (by choice or not), recognizing them - making sure they are not invisible - is an effortless act. The result means a great deal more than if we ignore them.