Amazing Grace: Fighting a Lack of Empathy in the Internet Age

chuck-carlton-atlas-holding-the-world-on-his-shouldersEvery time I witness a worldwide internet phenomenon growing in size and momentum then digging down deep to anchor itself in the upper echelons of web browser histories across the planet, I’m awed by humanity’s ability in this Age of Social Media to rally around any one thing of moderate interest (i.e. that goddamn dress from last week; WHO CARES WHAT COLOR IT IS…though it’s black and blue for sure).

Just as much as this phenomenon exists though, there are always the detractors (me included, occasionally) who get up in arms about people spending hours arguing about a dress, or sports, or some movie or TV show or awards show about TV or movies, all while rebels are (still) killing millions in Sudan and other African countries, ISIS is off beheading anybody who even looks at them funny, and global warming threatens to suffocate us all by time my generation’s great-grandkids are born.

And I get both sides of that argument, I really do. People like to be happy, so discussing things like dresses and movies and sports allow them the freedom to both socialize and be comfortable with their happiness. Who am I to begrudge anybody that?

On the other end though, I get the argument as well: it can sometimes feel like first-world citizens are being a bit selfish and borderline sadistic when you hear them bitching about why Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays while the global sex slave trade’s generating $32 billion a year and regularly claiming two million children in the same time span.

But in all the arguments between the entertained and the (marginally) empathetic, people keep ignoring the role human nature plays in this, which is to say we’re sensory creatures. If we can’t see it, hear it, taste it, or touch it, it’s nearly impossible for us to connect with it. I’ve never met anyone who survived one of the Sudanese genocides (though I hope I do someday). And I’ve never met anybody in ISIS (though I definitely do NOT hope I do someday). So finding some sort of larger picture to identify with in the limited frame that is North American society is not as easy as picking up the latest issue of The Times and reading.

I did, however, meet a woman at the Metrorail station with my dad one day.

It was 2005, and we were on the way home from a Miami Heat playoff game, taking the train back to my dad’s car near Dadeland Mall. The woman was homeless, sitting in a corner near the rails by herself staring off into the distance. I don’t remember her name (because I was admittedly not listening when she told us) so I’ll call her Grace, because she just seemed like a Grace (and also because Grace made it easier for me to title this blog post, don’t judge).

Grace was old. Her hands were wrinkled, as was her face, and she had these giant bags under her eyes that looked like sap moving slowly down a tree. Her lips were bright red with lipstick, almost blood-red. The rest of her face was makeup-less, and her hair was long and gray. I’d say Grace was in her 70’s at the time, though she could’ve been younger and all her years weathering the streets had just aged her prematurely. Grace was also relatively stylish in comparison with the rest of the people like her at the train station, wearing her frumpy purple flapper-like dress and large flowered hat cocked to the side. Her clothes were faded but clean, and she split her possessions between a huge black purse and a rolling suitcase that looked like it had been tossed down a mountain-side then dusted off and stuffed with heirlooms. Which was what Grace had in there: everything in the world she cared about, right at her side.

My dad stopped to talk to Grace that day, standing on the Metrorail platform three blocks from American Airlines Arena, and I remember being annoyed when he did. Really annoyed. I was 21 at the time (which means mentally I was about 14; I’ve aged slowly in a lot of ways over the years, pretty much all of them unflattering), so annoyance was my thing.

I remember being annoyed not because I wanted to spend time alone with my dad, not because the Heat had just won the game but lost our savior Dwyane Wade to a rib muscle tear (Game 5 of the ’05 Eastern Conference Finals, devastating injury), and not because Grace smelled and I didn’t feel like standing next to her (she actually didn’t smell bad at all—kind of musty, like mothballs, but not bad).

I got mad because Grace was homeless, and at 21 years old, talking to homeless people made me uncomfortable.

Yet I was with my dad, and it was around Father’s Day so I owed it to him to at least join him in this effort, whatever that effort was. I think that was the other reason I was aggravated too; I didn’t get my dad’s motivation. We’d passed countless homeless people throughout the years; usually while driving so stopping to talk wasn’t really an option, but still. I knew we were waiting on the train and just standing around, but couldn’t we just stand around on the other side of the platform?

Dad wasn’t having it.

So I stood by his side while he talked to Grace about her upbringing, how she’d been living in Miami since the 70’s and had gone through a bunch of ups and downs on the way to that train platform.

Grace also told us—and this was the part that got my hands out of my pockets, the scowl off my face, making eye contact with Grace instead of staring out at the rails wondering when the hell the train would show up—that she considered her time right then, standing on that platform with all her worldly possessions at her side, as one of the higher points in her life.

Because she was happy. She wasn’t going hungry and nobody was hurting her and she still possessed all the things she cared about, so Grace was happy.

“I’m happy,” she said, just like that, then smiled, revealing a mouth that was missing a few teeth but wasn’t in nearly the jacked-up condition I thought it’d be in.

And I remember wondering how somebody could possibly be happy under those conditions, without a home or a TV or a car or people in her life to have her back the way my dad did, or my mom, or my friends.

I mean, happy? Content maybe, but how could she be happy?

I called bullshit.

Yet my dad was eating this up, and it wasn’t until he started answering Grace’s follow-up questions that I found out why, and also found out why he’d stopped to talk to her in the first place.

You see, my father’s an immigrant from Jamaica, came up here in his early 20’s a year and a half after marrying my mother and about a year before she became pregnant with me, so around 1982. Before that, he was raised in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, pretty much on his own. His mother (my grandmother, who I never met) was a wonderful woman who died when he was twelve, and his father (grandfather, also never met) was a degenerate alcoholic and child abuser who had a habit of leaving his children at home by themselves for weeks, sometimes months at a time with no money or food. He did this frequently and angrily, returning home eventually to whoop my dad and all his brother’s and sister’s asses for letting the house get dirty while he was gone. He acted like this straight up until the day he died, when my dad was a teen, leaving his offspring to be scattered around Jamaica, fending for themselves.

I knew all of this already, of course. My mom and dad had told me the cliff-notes version of his childhood when I was a teen myself, but (as with stories in the internet age) I couldn’t identify with it personally, and therefore never really thought about what my dad had to go through just to be alive today.

However, what I didn’t know was that—for a period of time after my grandfather passed—my dad had also been homeless. I found this out at the same time Grace did.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” my dad told Grace, looking at me and placing a hand on my back. “And I could’ve never handled it the way you are.”

By time the train showed up, we were shaking Grace’s hand, my dad slipping a couple of bucks in his and handing them off to her.

We went home after that, and the next day I woke up in my room and got ready for school at Miami-Dade Community College as usual, wearing clothes from my closet. Later I drove my car to my classes, then went home to go play my video games before going to my job and, even later, hanging with my friends. I studied for my tests and wrote my stories and in 2006 left Miami to attend my college (Go Noles) and later my graduate school (Go Knights). I did any number of things between 21 and my current age of 31 that I could claim to be mine, experiencing my experiences and possessing my possessions and fighting tooth and nail for all of it because I felt it was what I deserved. For being alive, for striving to be happy. And I don’t blame myself. Like I said, it’s human nature.

But for that evening, after talking to Grace, I was extremely aware that everything I had—everything I could call my possession—existed in my life only because of this man who looked and acted a lot like me (or I like him, if you want to get technical about it), who at one point in his life had been living on the streets of a third world country like any number of American homeless kids populating our cities today. The same type of kid I’d typically shun, unless I was “in a generous mood.”

So here’s the stats, the unemotional numbers and percentages that symbolize a domestic problem that is much closer to home than Sudan or ISIS or even Global Warming but still fails to draw the empathy necessary to galvanize the masses, because it’s not in our faces every minute of every day:

  • There are over 1.75 million homeless people in the United States at any given moment, raking in an average whopping income of $348 a month.
  • There are over 31 million people going hungry in our country as you’re reading this.
  • Twelve million children are living below the poverty level from coast to coast.
  • Over 6,200 families rely on homeless shelter for their nightly lodging. And that’s just in New York City.

None of these numbers (and the countless other associated stats) mean shit unless you can identify with them, match them up to a face, an actual living and breathing human being to sort of jar that emotional connection out of you.

For me, that face isn’t Grace. It’s my dad.

There’s a lot of different ways to connect with your fellow human being. You don’t always need to be constantly aware of what’s happening in the world-at-large (though I recommend it) and I’m definitely not suggesting that people should walk around with some proverbial boulder of worldwide guilt sitting on their shoulders. I’m just saying empathy has become extremely underrated in modern society, and in many cases I see it on the verge of extinction. Whether that’s technology’s fault or just the further evolution of mankind, I don’t know. But I like to remind myself every once in a while about Grace and my dad, and the day I realized that the greatest man in my life—the man who helped bring me into this world—used to be a statistic too.