One night while out to dinner, I noticed an elegant, elderly lady at the next table over who was dining alone. I was drawn to her because sorrow clouded her eyes and she smiled sadly, the kind we all force when we do not feel happy.
The waiter seemed to know her. He leaned down to chat with her, placed his hand on her shoulder and was kindly solicitous. She responded with a grateful look. It was, for all practical purposes, an empathetic exchange. I called the waiter over and asked about the woman.
“She and her husband used to dine here all the time but he died a few months ago. Now, she comes here alone.” Though we were on dessert, I went over and invited her to join us but she quietly declined.
She explained that her husband had died five months earlier. They had been married for 60 years. She dropped her eyes. “It’s so hard without him, after all those years together.”
I squeezed her hand and sympathized. I saw Mama go through that when Daddy died after 57 years of marriage. “I’ll be praying for you,” I said. Again, she nodded quietly. “Please.”
Of all the things I see or hear, I am most saddened by the lack of empathy that some folks have. I had it, too, in my ignorant youth. I saw things only from my point of view and criticized soundly, often eloquently. Life changed that in me. It whipped me around, taught me the frailty of life and showed me how, despite our best efforts, we can still get in terrible jams.
I wrote a column on a house I passed often that was once filled with a happy family but foreclosure forced the family out. The house heaved with sadness and loneliness as the weeds grew and the flowers died.
Many of you wrote in to express similar thoughts on similar situations. One man wrote, “I tell everyone close to me not to buy a foreclosed home because, to me, it feels like taking advantage of another’s misfortune.”
One lone voice and opinion saddened me terribly. She wrote that she had no sympathy for anyone who lost their home because she and her husband had lived in an apartment and eaten sandwiches for nine years in order to afford the home they bought.
I see things differently. I see myself as blessed that some terrible tragedy or loss of job has not forced me from a home that was purchased after years of sewing my own clothes, clipping coupons and even working two or three jobs at a time. Yes, I worked hard and saved diligently to get here, but by the grace of God and lack of misfortune, I am able to stay here.
When I wrote about the dire straits of the post office and asked folks to start writing more letters and buying more stamps so that we could save jobs as well as an American institution, one man took it seriously. For his 70th birthday, he asked only for a copy of that column so he could mail to his friends and rally the cause. He forwarded the e-mail to hundreds of friends and family and said, “For my birthday, buy a stamp and mail a letter. Let’s help our fellow Americans.”
Of course, another response was different. He listed all the reasons he used e-mail and refused to use the postal system (though I can’t believe he doesn’t receive mail). How is it possible not to care about the welfare of others? How is it possible to be callous about a part of Americana that dates back to Benjamin Franklin and the founding of this great country?
Because some people are not empathetic. They don’t see another’s point of view.
Maybe I’m too empathetic, but that troubles me.