NOTE: I wrote this essay in the Fall of 2019 with no intentions to publish it. The recent weeks made me think it was worth posting — though it is not entirely in line with this site’s subject matter.
Humanity in Times of Scarcity
I sit, sniffing the wafting scent of freshly-ground coffee while the baristas tend to the growing line of impatient commuters. They shift their weight from side to side. Some check their watches or phones, and the gentle bustle of a weekday morning grows into a hurried frenzy. It’s the eight-o-clock rush.
The lady at the till quietly states her order and reaches for her wallet. A ten-dollar bill escapes her purse and flutters to the dark tile floor. The man behind her picks up the unnoticed loss and politely returns it to her. They smile and she thanks him. With coffee in hand she makes for the door and another customer, who is just about to enter, holds the door for her while she makes her exit.
I watch the interaction take place and start pondering — the kind of pondering in search of underlying causes and hidden meanings. The kind of pondering a hapless writer uses as procrastination fodder.
It wasn’t chivalry that drove the customer to hold the door. Nor was it some extreme sense of justice and law-and-order that compelled the man to return the errant ten. It was simply a good thing to do. They were able to project themselves into the lady’s situation. They had empathy. Civility.
By its definition empathy is an act of thinking of others — to place one’s self in another’s shoes and see through their eyes. It is a trait without which we humans are reduced to the mad, cold calculus of life. Robots. We lose our humanity. A community ceases to exist without empathy because “why would one put time and effort to improve the well-being of others with little return on investment?” “Why would I plant a tree that I may never be able to enjoy the shade of?” “Why would I help build a bridge over a river when I own a boat?” “Why would I help build institutions that I have no intention or need of using?”
The inverse of empathy is selfishness and narcissism.