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A patient of mine worked very hard, took a lot of risks, and started a business early in life that did extremely well. He still owns it but is much less involved in the day-to-day operations now. He pretty much retired in his mid-50s, and he now owns a home in the Caribbean, a home on a lake in a gated community near the mid-size city where his business is, and a very nice home here in Hilton Head. He splits his time between his three homes and travels around to play golf. He’s now in his late 60s and is a very happy and pleasant guy. I always enjoy seeing him. On our last visit, he told me an interesting story. He was at his home near his business, and went out for groceries:
I always go to the Whole Foods there. I like the stuff they have, and there’s always nice people in there. Anyway, they didn’t have something I wanted, so I went to the Food Lion across the street. Now again, in the Whole Foods, there were a lot of nice people, nice clothes, nice cars in the parking lot. Everybody’s wearing masks, social distancing – I felt really comfortable in there. But then I cross the street and park at Food Lion next to a bunch of beat up pickup trucks, everybody in there is fat, dirty, no teeth, no masks, and no social distancing. I was uncomfortable, and I couldn’t wait to get away from that store.
I got the couple things that I needed and hustled up to the line for the cash register. There was this short fat lady in front of me, checking out. Long stringy hair, no makeup, not a lot of teeth. She gives the checkout girl (who was even heavier than the lady in line) a debit card, then gets two twenties back as change, or a cash withdrawal or whatever. She gives one of the twenties back to the checkout girl, says something, and then leaves with all her stuff. I thought that was a little odd, but whatever. Get me out of here – I don’t care what’s going on in this place. None of my business.
So I give my items to the checkout girl, she scans them, and gives me a receipt plus about ten dollars in change. I told her, “I haven’t paid you yet. Why are you giving me change?”
The heavy checkout girl says, “The lady in front of me gave me $20 to go toward your groceries. You only got a couple things – this is your change.”
I said, “Oh wow. Look. I don’t need it. I have money. I’ll pay. Really.”
She replied, “No need. It’s covered.”
I said, “Why don’t you keep the $20? Get something you need. Again, I really don’t need it.”
The checkout girl smiled sheepishly and said, “Look, she said she worked a couple extra shifts and came out a bit ahead at the end of the month, so she wanted to help somebody out. She asked me to give this to you. So I am.”
“You should keep it.”
“I can’t. I told her I would give it to you.”
So my patient thanked her, took his small bag of groceries, and left the store, with tears in his eyes.
He and I just sat there in the exam room, for a minute. I didn’t say anything.
He said, “It’s so easy to judge people, you know? But there are some really good people out there. Which is easy to forget sometimes.”
The overweight customer at Food Lion had worked a couple of extra shifts and felt more financially comfortable at the end of the month. But she knew what it was like to be short on cash, so she was happy to help someone less fortunate than her. Many of her neighbors are ‘less fortunate.’ She’s been ‘less fortunate.’ Recently. She understands.
As we continue to distance ourselves physically and emotionally from our fellow Americans, and as our society becomes increasingly divided and tribal, it becomes more difficult to empathize with others who aren’t like us. After all, everyone we know is exactly like us.
All the things that divide our society – from social classes, to cell phones, to COVID, to social media, to politics, to anything else that divides us – all those things make empathy harder. It was hard already. It’s much harder now. And even though empathy is hard, that’s what makes us human.
We’re losing our humanity. My patient just had that shoved in his face at a crummy grocery store. Today, he felt the need to shove it in my face. Which I really do appreciate.
But many of us just carry on day to day, interacting virtually only with our ever-shrinking tribes, and scorning everyone else. Whatever. Forget them.
But when we forget them, we forget ourselves. We forget what makes us human to begin with. We forget empathy. After a while, we don’t really understand empathy. It doesn’t even make sense to us anymore. Everything is fine.
As we isolate ourselves from other people’s concerns, we also isolate ourselves from our own humanity. And we don’t even notice. It’s easier if we don’t, actually. Instacart and DoorDash are so handy. Plus, there’s a new series on Netflix! Yay!
We’re losing our humanity.
Well, many of us are. Not that certain overweight shopper that my patient met. Not her. Not only has she maintained her humanity, she even attempted to show his humanity to him. And he did the same to me. He’s probably shared with others as well. I’d say she got her money’s worth – she improved a lot of lives, for only $20. She would be pleased.
All of us humans should make it our mission in life to remind other humans that we are all human.
Empathy makes us human. And our humanity is inside all of us. Even if we ignore it from time to time. It’s still there.
But I think that ignoring our humanity is unnatural, and it makes us feel sad and empty. The isolation from social media, COVID, etc have caused epidemics of depression in our society. But you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on psych drugs and therapy to find your humanity.
After all, my patient found his for only $20.Published in