I have just finished reading The Best American Short Stories, 2012 edition, edited by Tom Perrotta. At the end of the book are the Contributor’s Notes. This Note, by Jess Walter, author of “Anything Helps”, captures beautifully how our own assumptions and judgments get in the way of empathy:
“My city is poor. Over the past few years it has seemed as if a homeless person with a cardboard sign has staked out every downtown corner. At the best corners, they wait their turns like workers expecting a shift change. Sometimes I give money. Sometimes I don’t. I don’t have a coherent policy. Sometimes I don’t even see the person until I drive away; they are part of the landscape. Sometimes they have a story about what happened to them. These stories rarely seem true (Vietnam War vets in their forties, former bank executives without teeth). So I do what people do. I make assumptions. I crunch the numbers. Before I give money, I engage in the calculus of need: Isn’t he young enough to work? Is she a meth addict? Will my money just go for booze? The political and corporate right in this country would have us believe that someone’s hard times are an affront to our own hard work, that we should blame the poor for their own poverty. I think this is like hitting a pedestrian with your car and then blaming him for the dent.
A few years ago, a panhandling woman asked my wife and me for money to buy food for her three children. It was clear to us both that she was lying; she probably didn’t even have kids. She seemed drunk and there was a liquor store nearby. Still, I gave her ten dollars. Later, we saw her walking with a couple of grocery bags. Three little kids were walking behind her. I suppose that’s what sparked ‘Anything Helps’: plain old empathy and shame.”