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Have Americans Lost Their Empathy in this Recession?

In today’s economy, it seems that everyone is struggling in some way – students are worried about loan debt, homeowners are worried about the value of their homes and everyone seems to be cutting back on some of the finer things in life. In considering that most everyone has had to make some adjustments in the past 5 years, I wonder about American’s level of empathy with each other. Beyond congressional debates about government assistance programs, it has been my observation that many Americans hold the opinion that they have their own problems to worry about, and not enough time or resources to be concerned about others. One controversial area I witness this in is the relationship between the homeless and those of financial means.

I can confidently say that almost all Chicagoans have experienced the complex feeling when a homeless man or woman enters your train car, asking all passengers if they can spare change or dollars. For me at least, this feeling is complex in that I feel pained by the voices of despair. I consider the circumstances the person must be under in order to publicly admit their need for help amongst train riders who at some hours, are commuting to and from work. On the other hand, I shudder at the sound of these voices out of frustration that they are on a train cart, calling for help that as a middle-class American, I consider relatively easy to find. I am not denying the fact that my sentiments of frustration may be due to my middle class standing, but from the blank faces and lack of attention these people receive, I know I am not alone. The train car instantly transforms from a place of relative quietness (especially riding the Brown Line North around 5:30), to a dreadful silence, pierced every so often by the cry for help from the passenger in need.

Growing up, we are told not to give money to the homeless for fear they will turn around and purchase liquor or drugs. As a child, this sentiment led me to believe that all homeless people were drug-addicts or alcoholics, which is far from the truth. Today, many of the homeless or poor operate under the radar. Opposite of those who publicly ask for money or food, there are men and women who surround us daily, unwilling to admit their need for help. I consider this growing population of the silent homeless and poor families to be the product of American’s general position that “although there are people in need, I must help myself first”. These silent individuals understand that many Americans are going through a tough time, and choose not to burden their friends and families with their problems. However, I know there is room for most Americans to help out others. While I acknowledge that it is easier said than done, everyone can probably admit to little, unnecessary expenses they rack up. For me, it is the $3 coffee drink I buy a couple times a week, knowing I have the beans and cream to make my own. If I could save this expense 3 days a week, I would have $9 to positively influence someone else.

While I am not advocating that people loosely give away their money to any person asking on the street, I do think it is important to show a little compassion for these people, even if we do not fully understand their situation. You and I can easily pick up an extra banana at the market or a granola bar to give to someone in need. As small as this sounds, I have witnessed the appreciation they bear with this kindness. Then again, there are some people I have seen who do not show this same gratitude. However, this is also part of human nature, poor or rich. But, at the end of the day, whether the person thanked you with a smile or barely acknowledged your gesture, I think it is okay to take pride in doing something good for another human – that’s part of human nature too.


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