The son of Mexican immigrants, Jose grew up on the outskirts of the rural town of Poteet, Texas. He, his five siblings and parents lived in a single-wide mobile home on a large plot of barren land. Other than his grandmother, who lived in the trailer next to them, the nearest neighbor was five miles away. Though poor and denigrated by the white kids he went to school with, Jose was determined to make something of himself. And that he did. Through hard work and hours of studying, Jose earned a full-ride scholarship to Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin, where he earned a degree in Electrical Engineering, graduated with honors and secured a job in the Aeronautical Industry.
Jose was asked to share his personal journey with kids who were growing up in the ghetto/barrio in hopes that it would inspire them to stay in school. Jose responded, “No one helped me and I figured it out. They can, too.”
Glen was the son of a career Air Force sergeant. After one year in college, Glen dropped out and joined the Air Force himself. He was hard-working, dedicated, and was gaining in rank quickly. Every time he was eligible for a promotion, he received one. That is, until he achieved the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. Just one stripe shy of the highest possible NCO rank, Glen retired after serving his country for 20 years. He would have stayed in the military for the allowable 10 more years except, as he tells it, he knew he’d never achieve that final promotion due to a personality conflict he had with the Colonel he reported to.
In his weekly conversation with his 85-year-old mother, Glen commented the media was making too much of the little Iranian boy who was separated from his mother at Dulles Airport due to President Trump’s ban on Iranians entering the country. His mother asked, “Glen, you used to be so empathetic. What happened?” He bluntly replied, “If you’d been screwed over like I was by Colonel Johnson you wouldn’t be so empathetic either!”
At 19 years old, Thomas fell madly in love with 24-year-old Daphne, an English woman on vacation in America. As Europeans are inclined to do, Daphne’s vacation was a full month long and Thomas met her early in her first week here. They spent the entire month together and, as Thomas recites the story, he knew the moment he first met Daphne that he would marry her. He continued to court Daphne after she returned to Liverpool via phone calls and letters.
He saved enough money to fly over four months later to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Within six months Daphne and Thomas were married and living in Ojai, California. Shortly thereafter they had a son they named August and Daphne became a stay-at-home Mom. Thomas had to work two jobs to make ends meet and Daphne complained of being lonely. Not surprisingly, the two grew apart, divorced and Daphne took August and moved back to Liverpool.
Thomas remarried, had four more children with his second wife, Bridget. His third son, Clark, recently visited Thomas and Bridget and brought his Golden Retriever puppy with him. The puppy wet on the carpet and Thomas told Clark he was never to bring that “God-damned dog” back to his house again. “Dad, it’s a puppy!” exclaimed Clark. “Give him a break.” To which Thomas responded that Clark was too soft on the puppy and he’d never be house trained. Zero empathy on Thomas’ part.
It’s easy to see how deep emotional hurt can harden a man. But to lack empathy is a choice. It isn’t the fault of the kids in the ghetto that Jose didn’t live a privileged childhood. It isn’t the refugees’ fault that Glen didn’t get a promotion and it isn’t Clark’s puppy’s fault that Daphne and August left Thomas.
Contrast Jose, Glen, and Thomas with Jim: Jim waited until later in life to marry. He and D’Arcy both had successful careers when they met and married in their late 40’s. With a loving marriage and the dream life they were building together, D’Arcy was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and within five years had lost full cognition. Jim, the President of a successful mid-size company spent all his money caring for D’Arcy. He even sold their dream home and moved into a small apartment to continue to fund D’Arcy’s care.
Jim began spending his free time volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association, actively working on committees and using his business connections to raise money for the Association. Knowing the pain caused by the loss of a loved one, Jim was exceptionally empathetic to anyone who suffered such a loss.
Whether it’s heartbreak, career disappointment, prejudice or any other negative experience life deals you, it’s your choice as to how you allow it to affect you and your empathy for others. Choose wisely as it will affect you too.
Photo credit: Flickr