Empathy in Action?

2247299-empty-bench-in-a-public-parkI came into TDC this year not expecting a whole lot of personal “ah-ha” moments.  I’ve done it before, and it did absolutely transform me—but I thought of it as a one-time transformation, that then I would witness in other people.  I was really looking forward to that—to facilitating the conversations that would do that.  But Day 1 and I was already reminded of why you can never do this too many times.  I had a moment that reminded me of how visceral the reactions during TDC can be.

I was walking back and forth between the grocery and dollar store, comparing prices, so I passed a bench of guys waiting for a bus.  My final trip back and forth, one of them flagged me down and asked for a couple of bucks for a cab.  I had just had to borrow 2 cents from a younger TDC participant to pay for tax, and though it wasn’t a big deal, that ask was hard.  My normal response, when asked for a couple of dollars, is to (mostly honestly) say that I don’t have cash—but I did have cash on me that day, and so I gave him $5.  I’m not entirely sure what it was about that day that made me respond differently—perhaps it was that I was suddenly conscious of how rich I normally am, that I don’t have to worry about such small amounts of money.  Perhaps it was the knowledge of the $20s that I had pulled out of my wallet to limit the money I had on hand to $10 for the week.  Perhaps it was because I had just experienced how hard it is to ask even a relative stranger for money, particularly someone younger.  Whatever the reason, I gave him the money, and the mixture of shock and pleasured surprise on his face told me that he was not expecting the money from me, and that in itself was troubling—he felt like he had to ask, even though he didn’t think it was going to work.  Later in the week, even when asking people for donations for a charitable organization, it verged on humiliation when people ignored or refused me.  In that moment, I empathized so strongly with that man, and was simultaneously conscious of our similarities and the structural differences in our situations.  I think that’s what led me to give him the money he asked for.

Even now that the week is over, I’m still not sure what to make of this: does the fact that when I was empathizing with him I knew immediately that I should give mean that I should always give?  How do I distinguish when I should give when I’m wrapped up in my normal life?  I’d welcome any thoughts on what my behavior should be going forward, but I’d like to close on a note that’s less ambiguous—TDC’s role in creating empathy. I’ve talked about this before, but this was not just talking about feeling empathetic with the poor, but about changing my own behavior because of it.  TDC is not just about words, although the thoughtfulness that arises is a big part of it, and it’s not just about emotions, although I do have more emotional reactions during the week.  It’s about these two aspects directly changing how I engage with the world.

Laura Dick is a recent graduate of the University of Mary Washington, majoring in economics and anthropology. She has participated in the Two Dollar Challenge three times.  She’s on the Two Dollar Challenge team and is the impact assessment specialist for La Ceiba, a student-run client-centered microfinance institution operating in El Progreso, Honduras.

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