Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Everyday Use of Empathy

A lot of times I see them. I saw one yesterday, sitting at that same place where I've seen him a few times before. Wrapped up in what's probably left of the clothes he now owns, in an attempt to shield out the wind, cold and light snow of a lingering Colorado winter. The type of cold wind that gets worse along the intersections of I-25, as it gathers in intermittent swirls that reveal the harsh reality that nature has its less than benevolent side.

Sometimes he's there, but sometimes all that's there are a few blankets and jars of what appears to be some sort of nourishment. Sometimes there are two of them, together, in a sort of defeated silence. You can see that what little hope they may have left is focused on the potential generosity of a disengaged audience. An audience that doesn't want to realize that tomorrow, they could just as easily be the ones holding up the handmade cardboard signs that say "please help."

Growing up, I remember you didn't used to see them here. At least not on the Front Range or in the tourist traps and towns nestled in the mountains. I would see a few in Boulder during my teenage years, on my many trips to that one place in Colorado where I felt a sense of mixed inspiration and familiarity. But, they were usually disguised as musicians, poets, or wrapped up in some other sort of artsy ambiance. My other exposure to them was through my Mom's work as a social worker. But by then, they had found refuge from the streets, cleaned-up, and on the outside were disguised as being a "normal person." The spirit behind their eyes said otherwise, but a sheltered child and adult-in-training doesn't yet realize that the universe doesn't always reflect back a picture of delicacy.

At times the picture that gets reflected back is one that we haven't seen yet, but we need to. When I moved to Florida, for the second and real time, I began to see that indelicate picture. Florida, unlike Colorado, can be an adventure in seeing a juxtaposition of privilege and economic despair slammed up against each other. For those who haven't lived there, you can literally be driving through a golf course community one second and then suddenly find yourself in a run-down neighborhood filled with dilapidated, mold and rust covered buildings, somewhat hidden by overgrown, swampy terrain, complete with flags from the Confederacy peeking out from the front lawns. But, then again, Florida, like any popular and well-known U.S. locale or city, is a true snapshot of our country's "melting pot." Needless to say, for a young soul trying to find herself in the world, it was humbling and eye-opening scenery.

I would see them in that scenery, for the first time really, holding those same handmade signs that I still see now. Those without a place to call home. Those who wondered if they would be able to eat something today. Those who probably wished they could just lay down somewhere comfortable, maybe take a hot shower, and maybe have someone look beyond their appearance and into their eyes. The simple, basic things in life that we take for granted until we ourselves lose them or come close to losing. Things I once thought I would lose myself in that world of sunshine, crystal teal oceans, swaying palms and white sand beaches. A combination of not so great choices, not so great luck, and the aftershocks of traumatic events and worldwide changes can bring anyone to that point or at least to the brink of it.

For many, I suppose, it's hard to look past the facade of appearances because they either don't want to, they are stuck in their "me paradigm," or because they simply lack a little imagination. Most empaths, I'm sure, could agree with my experience of almost always automatically finding themselves being able to shift behind someone else's eyes. Even if we haven't experienced something or someone ourselves, we understand somehow. In fact, we more than understand. We feel it. Some would say we even experience it ourselves, in that unseen realm that others call "make-believe."

That's why it bothers me to see them there, holding up their handmade signs, hoping against hope. That's why it brings tears to my eyes when I realize that I can't fix it, even though I want to grab them off the streets and give them those basic, simple things that no one should have to do without. It's why I always take time to look into their eyes, even if just for a moment, and realize that I'm really looking at myself. It's why I smile, just a little, when I see the person in the car in front of me, reach out and offer what they can. It's why I think about going against company policy and offering them a ride to someplace warmer, safer and where I could provide an answer, even if short-lived, to their handmade signs.

But then I remember that I'm a female, alone, who still looks like she's twenty-something, who could find herself in a situation she'd rather not repeat. Post-traumatic stress aside, fear is the true inhibitor. Fear of the unknown. Fear of association. Fear of becoming like someone who is looked down upon. Fear of seeing what's real in someone else that might, just might, force you to see the real in yourself.

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