An interesting story has been making the rounds at Reddit and FaceBook lately. You can get all the details here, but the gist is that a man was trying to pay his baggage fee at the airport and had his card declined, and before he could get to the counter to work out what was wrong, a stranger paid the fee for him.
It’s a touching story, especially in America these days. We’re so focused on individual freedoms and personal responsibility, sometimes it seems easy to forget that people still look out for each other and care about each other. But for me, it’s also oddly frustrating. Not the story itself but my reaction to it. I want to just have a lighthearted pleasure of one person helping another person out, but –while I definitely smiled at the helping-a-stranger-out bit– I can’t quite get past what the guy who paid for the baggage fee said. He wrote a note to the guy whose card was declined, saying “i heard them say your card was declined. I know how it feels. Your bag fee’s on me, just pay it forward the next time you get a chance.”
Empathy is great. It binds us together, helps us put the other guy in our shoes, and prompts us to forge connections we wouldn’t normally see. And no question, this is a good thing. The problem is that empathy only goes so far. This guy who payed the luggage fee because he knew what it felt like to be in that situation. He has been embarrassed in situations where his credit card was declined, in a situation where he really needed it to work. this lets him crawl inside the other guy’s head, realize he would like somebody to help him, if their positions were reversed, and so make the uplifting leap of faith necessary to help another person. The problem is, empathy has its limits and we’re much more likely to empathize with people who look like you. Empathy means you’re more likely to help a fellow middle-class traveler whose credit card is declined. But it also may mean you’re less likely to sympathize with the panhandler you pass on your way to the subway because you can’t imagine how someone couldn’t have access to a decent job so someone that poor must be stupid or lazy or both.
Don’t get me wrong, helping people out is good. Seeing yourselves in other people is good, and wanting to help them out because now you see how that situation would impact you is good, too. But if this leads you to privilege certain people over others, that’s obviously a problem. A big one.