Admiration and Empathy. Dialogue

Photo by jonas mohamadi on

There are forces that affect us every day of our lives. One is Admiration.

Notice how much effort goes into stressing the differences between us. ‘Look at my Tesla. My Mercedes. Look at how I dress. Check out my handbag – designed by such and such. I live over there, yes, on the hill, above the hoi polloi. I went to Harvard. To Stanford. I dine there – ugh, never will get caught dining at that other place. I can do this, I can do that, and you can’t.’

How we relish the opportunity to show off. To parade our perceived superiority. It’s that narcissism in us, isn’t it? And what a force it is.

But it comes with risks. One such risk is that with the affirmation of what we have or have earned, if not careful, we may open the door for the slow erosion of empathy.

The more we may feel admired, the more we may believe we are special and unique.

And, indeed, we may be, but so are those who’re doing the admiring. They, too, are unique, in their own way. They, too, have their own power, even if not expressed fully for lack of effort or other circumstances.

The person who’s being admired has made an assertion of their power and yet, in between the layers of such assertion, another statement may have been made, ‘I am better than you,’ which leads to the slow erosion of empathy.

Such erosion is insidious, barely perceptible at first, but if not checked may quickly become pronounced.

Where I live, I go for walks in a business district adjacent. There is one beggar I’ve come across often as he sits cross legged on the sidewalk, a cup for donations in front. Now and then I dropped money in his cup but never said anything.

Did I think of myself as better than him?

Yes. And I asked, why does this man keep doing the same thing, again and again?

Not long ago I noticed he had started talking to himself and wondered whether he was mentally ill.

More days passed and then I saw him talking loudly at passing cars as he stood by the side of the street.

I went up to him. 

‘Hi… I’ve never seen you talking loudly at passing cars… you seem to be getting worse… did you go off your medication?’

It was the first time I had addressed him and he was surprised. He could have told me off, to mind my own business, but he didn’t.

I then added, ‘I used to work in the field so I know something about it.’

Nothing else was said but days later he had stopped talking loudly at the passing cars.

Maybe that was the problem, I reflected.

Weeks went by. Now and then we would cross paths as we both walked about, sometimes exchanging a nod.

And, yes, I felt my empathy eroding. Is he really trying to improve his lot?

A part of me wanted to give up on him, assigning him to the group of people who have stopped trying, who don’t put an effort to improve their lives. Another part of me cautioned restraint, to wait and see.

Then one day, as he again sat squatting on the sidewalk, I put money in his cup and said, ‘there is help, you know… you could go to vocational rehabilitation. There are things they could do for you so you can give up this lifestyle.’

He looked back, the eyes wide, the skin sun burnt and, yes, a hint of a smile, but said nothing.

I reminded myself not to judge, tempted as I was, for I knew nothing of his story.

More days passed and then I tried again.

I walked right up. ‘Have you looked into what is available?’

He met my gaze, and I thought I saw a sense of satisfaction in his expression. ‘I’ve made an appointment with a psychiatrist and a therapist,’ he said.

I was pleased to hear it and told him so. Will he keep his appointments? Time will tell.

All the while I had been on the edge of giving up on him. To simply avoid him. Stop putting money in his cup.

But I also reminded myself to keep up the dialogue. To not let it die.

Yes, the precious dialogue. The life giving dialogue.

The one with myself, which reminds me that as I have my powers the man must have his, even if not fully expressed.

And the one with him, so as to challenge my prejudices and my tendency to judge.

Oh, dialogue, don’t you ever leave me!

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