Leftover Pizza and the Struggle with Empathy

November 24, 2015

Categories: Empathy

There is a homeless woman I see sometimes when I take the train to work. She asks me for money so she can get something to eat. Most of the time, I say no. I rationalize it by thinking to myself that I don’t know what she will do with the money, and I would prefer to give my money to my church or other organizations that help social problems like homelessness on a larger scale.

But if I’m honest with myself, she also makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like thinking about the fact that there are people who don’t have a place to live, or don’t have enough to eat. I feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, and I feel guilty because I have a good job and a nice apartment, and I don’t have to worry about those things.

Last weekend I was hanging out with some friends in Uptown, watching college football and relaxing. We ended the night by eating a couple large pizzas at Rocco’s. We had a few slices of pizza leftover, and I carried the leftovers in a pizza box as I walked back to my apartment.

Near my apartment, an SUV drove by, and the window rolled down. It was a big group of young people who looked pretty much like me, and the guy nearest to me said, “Hey, can you spare a slice?” Without thinking about it too much, I walked over to the car, and handed them the leftovers.

Here’s the question I struggled with as I thought about this the next day: What was different about the homeless lady at the train station and the 20-somethings in Uptown? In both scenarios, there was a need. In both scenarios, I had money/food to spare. But in one scenario, I helped, and in the other scenario, I said no.

My behavior didn’t really make sense. If anything, I think a strong argument could be made that I should do the opposite. The 20-somethings in Uptown didn’t need my leftover pizza. They were all dressed nicely and were driving an expensive SUV. They could buy their own pizza. The homeless woman, on the other hand, had a more legitimate need. So what’s the deal?

I think the difference in my behavior has to do with empathy. Empathy involves the ability to understand the experience of another human being. There are cognitive and affective components to empathy. The cognitive component involves being able to take the perspective of the other person. The affective component involves being able to share the feelings of the other person.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think I had more empathy for the 20-somethings in Uptown than the homeless woman at the train station.

But when I analyzed it a bit, it made sense. The 20-somethings in Uptown were more similar to me, so I had an easier time understanding their perspective. I could imagine myself being in their situation—going out and being hungry for a slice of pizza. I’ve never been homeless, and I’ve always had enough food to eat, so it’s more difficult for me to understand the perspective of the homeless woman at the train station.

I think there is a motivational component at play also. Engaging with the homeless woman makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty about my privilege. I don’t like feeling that way, so there is a part of me that moves away from even trying to empathize with her in order to avoid those uncomfortable feelings.

The take-home lesson for me is that it is easier to empathize with people who are more similar to me. But that’s not usually the people who need my help. If I want to make a difference in the world and serve those less fortunate than me, I need to actively move toward their experience and try to understand and empathize with them, even if it is uncomfortable.

Discussion: Do you find it easier to empathize with individuals who are more similar or more different from you? What have you found to be helpful when trying to empathize with others who are different from you?


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  1. Jen November 29, 2015 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    I think you bring up a good point about how most of us deal with these types of situations. I meet homeless people on a daily basis as I get to and from work and if I go to a grocery store. And it’s always money that they ask for. I don’t think that you necessarily had an easier time giving the people in the SUV the pizza because they were more relatable but instead I think we as humans have an easier time parting from physical things, like you with the pizza, instead of giving someone, that we have no connection to on any level, money from our wallet. Because if it’s our neighbor that asked for money to make rent we might think twice but when it’s a homeless person you don’t know what that money will be spent on and I personally would not want my money going to drugs or alcohol. (And that’s a whole separate topic about not knowing where the money goes and having prejudice against homeless people, which I’m aware of but I’m trying to stay on topic, unless someone wants to discuss that, let me know)

    So instead of giving money to that one homeless person, I’m part of an organized group that helps families with food and kids clothing by simply posting requests on FB. I feel like that is something that works for me. I know exactly what my money is used for, I know that the groceries that I bought and brought to a family will help feed their children for the rest of the month. Maybe it’s because it’s families with children but I honestly also think that a big part of it is that I directly see the things that my money bought. And again, it’s easier to part with things than money?!?

    So back to what you really asked about, do I empathize easier with people similar to me? I think so because I can easily put myself in their shoes. But I also know that I have a professional level of empathizing that’s been honed by years of working in the health care field and that isn’t always a good thing. Because I seem to bring that professional empathy out into the world as well, locking down on my emotional response, which can seem less caring to people. Unless you work in the medical field and know that you have to do it like that or else you’d bring home way too much baggage. And I’m not sure how often I empathize or not, but I’m always trying to at least acknowledge the other person and treat them with kindness and respect. And that’s something God and good upbringing has given me.

  2. Joshua Hook November 30, 2015 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    I think you make some good points here Jen. You’re probably right–I think there is a difference for me in giving money vs. food. Your group on FB that helps with food and clothing for those in need sounds really cool! I think it would be a cool idea for a non-profit to set that up in various communities.

  3. […] as I walked through downtown Dallas the other night. I tried to avoid eye contact with the homeless man asking me for money—I certainly didn’t want to sit with him or touch […]

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