Jennifer loved the drive to work. It was never cold in southwest Florida, so she kept the windows down year-round, letting the breeze flow through her hair. It added its own pulsating rhythm to the melodies of her ZZ Top album, and was the same breeze that gently swayed the palm trees that lined the parkway. After seven years in Florida, she still marveled at the palm trees.
She stopped at a 7-11 to fill up the tank of her blue BMW and grab an orange cranberry muffin. She’d just reached the car before realizing she needed the restroom.
She walked around to the side of the building, noticing how well the stucco had help up over the six years since this 7-11 had been built. As her hand reached for the knob on the restroom door, she heard an unfamiliar sound.
She froze for a second to get a better listen over the sound of traffic. It was a whimpering sound, soft and muted. She took her hand off the doorknob and walked to the rear of the building, where the sound seemed to be coming from.
There, by the dumpster, was a little girl of about six. She was wearing a bright but battered yellow Spongebob tanktop with green shorts. Her hair was beautiful- long and auburn, but a bit matted, as if it hadn’t been brushed. The girl was sitting with her back to the stucco, her arms resting on her knees, and her head buried in her arms.
Jennifer gasped slightly, and covered her hand with her mouth. It was a pitiful sight to behold.
The girl jerked her head up from her arms, and the flash of sadness in her brown eyes didn’t escape Jennifer’s notice. The sadness lasted only a moment, though, as the girl quickly recovered, wiping her eyes with her arm and assuming a more dignified air.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Jennifer asked, inching closer. She knelt beside the girl.
Then she saw her other eye, purple and bruised. There was makeup covering it, but Jennifer guessed that the girl had done the makeup herself; it was a valiant but haphazard attempt.
Jennifer extended her hand.
“My name is Jennifer. What’s yours?”
“Gloria,” came the reply.
“Gloria. That’s a beautiful name. Where do you live, Gloria? Are your parents here with you?”
Gloria pointed to a mobile home park barely visible behind the row of trees that lined the back of the 7-11 lot.
“Who lives at home with you? Your mom? Dad?”
The girl nodded.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Gloria shook her head.
“Who did this to you, Gloria? Who gave you the black eye?”
“Daddy.” At the sound of the word, Gloria began to sob, as if the very mention of him hurt.
Thirty minutes later, Jennifer found herself in front of the Child Protective Services building.
She called into work, explained the situation, and stayed with Gloria until the CPS worker assured her that she was no longer needed. Gloria was remarkably forthcoming and quite intelligent. She even knew her own address.
A week passed, and Jennifer had not been able to shake thoughts of the brave but terrified little girl. The following Friday, after work, Jennifer stopped by the mobile home park. She drove slowly through the narrow streets, and as she saw all the shirtless men drinking beer in their front yards, and all the old women hanging laundry out to dry, she suddenly felt very conspicuous in her Ray-Bans and her shiny BMW.
Finally, she spotted Gloria’s house: 1173 Palm Drive, Lot 42. It was a grey mobile home with a hastily-built awning serving as shade over the front porch, painted in green and white stripes. Two plastic chairs and a small table sat on the porch, which descended into the yard with concrete blocks that served as steps.
Jennifer put the car in park and leaned back in her seat. She didn’t really know what to do, or even why she was here. She was drawing stares from the neighbors, but she didn’t care.
“Who are you?” The voice came from behind Jennifer, startling her. She turned to see a young woman in her mid-twenties holding a laundry basket.
“Well... what do you want?”
Jennifer recovered herself.
“I’m sorry... forgive me. My name’s Jennifer, and I just wanted to check on Gloria.” There was a slight trembling in her voice.
“How do you know Gloria?”
“I... well, I met her last week, at the 7-11. We became friends of sorts. I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”
The woman eyed her suspiciously.
“Gloria’s gone. Cops been rollin’ in and outta here for a week after she disappeared. Her daddy’s locked up. Damn shame.”
“What do you mean it’s a shame? Excuse me, but I think it’s in Gloria’s best interests that her daddy’s ‘locked up,’ as you put it. That little girl didn’t deserve what he did to her.”
A flash of recognition came across the woman’s face.
“You did this, didn’t you? You called the cops on her daddy.”
Jennifer didn’t like the accusatory tone.
“You’re damned right I called the cops. Or, rather, I called CPS. No child should have to go through that. You think it’s okay to beat on a little girl?”
The woman, still holding her laundry basket, rolled her eyes.
“You don’t know nothin’ about nothin’, do you? Gloria’s mama was leavin’ that man. The day Gloria disappeared, she was paying the first month’s rent and deposit on a new place across town. Got herself a job at a dentist’s office. She siphoned money off that man for three years to pay for that place. Twice, he caught her. Beat the hell out of her for it. She kept on, though, said her lil’ girl deserved better. You’ve never seen a mother who loved her daughter like this one. Gloria’s all she had, and Gloria knew it, too. Couldn’t separate those two.”
“You said ‘had.’ “
“You said that Gloria’s all she had. “
“Yeah. Had. She don’t have her now. Never will, I bet. The whole family’s illegal, ‘cept Gloria. She was born her. They got her in foster care now, but the rest of ‘em’s bein’ shipped back to Cuba. “
Jennifer realized she was biting her lower lip.
“I doubt that girl ever sees her mama again.”
In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Paul Bloom takes empathy to task. He begins by noting that empathy not only occupies an expansive space in our capacity to be human, but that empathy is perhaps the most human quality we possess. To illustrate the point, Bloom quotes Adam Smith in his 1759 “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”:
For Smith, what made us moral beings was the imaginative capacity to “place ourselves in his situation … and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”
Bloom goes on to point out the abundance of research that has arisen from the desire to cultivate more empathy in our society. After all, it is empathy that motivates us to call the Red Cross when a hurricane or an earthquake strikes. It is empathy that enables us to craft the necessary legislation to ensure that the poor have food to eat, and that the sick have access to proper healthcare. If we can cultivate empathy, the world will inevitably be a better place... right?
There’s a catch, though. Like all things, empathy has its limits. As Bloom states, “empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”
But how could empathy possibly be a bad thing? It’s not- not really. Hailing it as the cure for civilization’s ills, however, is a bit reductionist.
Take Sandy Hook. In the wake of that unimaginable tragedy, we came together as a nation. We wanted to help, and help we did. Too much so, in fact:
Newtown was...inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community.
Of course, it’s not the worst thing in the world that the victims of that senseless tragedy received too much help, is it? Except that we forget that ‘help’ is not limitless. The assistance that went to Sandy Hook was needed elsewhere, and desperately so. Since it was Sandy Hook that was receiving the attention, though, it was the easiest way for us to help. It was brought to the forefront of our consiousness, so it was simply a matter of following instructions and saying, “There. I’ve done my part.”
We don’t pay attention to the tragedies that occur in the everyday, all around us; it doesn’t fit our sense of what the narrative should be- and the narrative plays to our sense of empathy.
The result is a vicious cycle of needless suffering; those that can be helped, and get the spotlight, are helped. Those suffering silently in the shadows are doomed to continue suffering.
As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”
The extent to which we can change the course of things, Bloom argues, lies in our ability to empathize not only with past suffering, but with future suffering as well.
Consider global warming—what Rifkin calls the “escalating entropy bill that now threatens catastrophic climate change and our very existence.” As it happens, the limits of empathy are especially stark here. Opponents of restrictions on CO2 emissions are flush with identifiable victims—all those who will be harmed by increased costs, by business closures. The millions of people who at some unspecified future date will suffer the consequences of our current inaction are, by contrast, pale statistical abstractions.
Empathy in and of itself is indeed a very human, and absolutely crucial, element. It has its limits, though. In order to enact the most good in this world, we have to understand where its limits lie. Once we reach those limits, we must let reason and logic take over.
In the story above, Jennifer does what most would do: when you see a child in an abusive situation, of course your heart will go out to that child, of course you will want to help. But if you only listen to the deafening sound of the empathy echoing in your heart, you may end up doing more harm than good.
The dance of the world is a dance between logic and empathy, between reason and compassion. To use one without the other is inhuman. To intertwine the two in a worldview that enacts the most possible good in this world is true wisdom.