Part I - Empathy Is a Choice
"Empathy is a choice," I read on the billboard.
We had just boarded the bus. It was crowded and New York City bound.
I was sitting with my friend near the front when a young Asian couple entered.
The couple wanted to sit together, but no two connected seats were available. They took what they could get: two nearby seats on opposite sides of the aisle.
The Asian man wasn't ready to settle. I saw him ask the teenager next to him if she wouldn't mind switching to the other side, so that he could sit with his wife.
"I'd rather not move," the teenager told him. She plugged in her headphones.
The man looked frustrated. He leaned across the aisle to ask an older woman who was sitting on the far side of his wife, but she was also wearing headphones and locked into her phone.
He tried to get her attention, but she didn't hear him, or at least, she pretended not to. He tried again and again, she didn't respond.
At this point, you could see him growing agitated. His wife was quiet and tried to calm him, but he was speaking loudly in a language that I didn't understand.
Why wouldn't anyone do him a simple favor? I felt his pain.
I mean, I had overseen the entire ordeal. How could I not feel his pain?
It wasn't long before I told my friend, "We're giving up our seats."
"No dude," he told me. "Why do you have to be so nice?"
"It's just the right thing to do," I said.
It was the right thing to do. We didn't do it, though.
My friend had already started playing a video game on his phone, and I was too much of a bitch to make a big deal out of it.
It was relatively easy to give up my own seat, but much harder to convince my friend to do the same.
His ability to retreat into a mobile device overpowered my ability to put myself in the Asian man's shoes.
I was pissed, but eventually gave up and grabbed my own phone. It wasn't worth ruining the trip over.
I logged into Snapchat, Instagram and finally, Facebook -- whatever I could do to distract myself.
In silence, my friend and I typed and scrolled and typed and scrolled until we eventually forgot about the couple. It was as though our phones made it easier to forget.
Part II - If We Aren't a Bunch of Narcissists, What Are We?
Later that night, I came across an article about empathy. I immediately remembered the bus ride.
The article was focused around narcissists and the question of whether or not they can empathize. According to recent research, it's clear that narcissists are indeed capable of empathy.
So it's reasonable to believe that a narcissist might have actually given up his seat for the couple. But... the research found, narcissists are also more inclined to avoid situations that might trigger empathy. This is to say, they can be empathetic; they just more often choose not to be.
A chill slithered up my spine (not because I used a semicolon, but) because it occurred to me, for the very first time, could I be one of them -- a narcissist?
Could my friend be one, too?
We both could have helped that couple. We just chose not to.
In fact, we deliberately avoided the situation. It was human computing that decided not to intervene.
That's right, this was a human issue at hand, not a technological one. Our phones simply facilitated our escape.
We were sick, selfish machines. We expected our empathy to cost us the inconvenience of switching seats, and not sitting together, so we used our phones to tune out the Asian couple and our own feelings of guilt.
If we weren't narcissists by clinical standards, I wondered, what were we?
People with too many gadgets to think clearly? To feel clearly?
People with good intentions, short attention spans and a propensity to do what's best for ourselves?
People trying to figure out this mess of a universe one bus ride at a time?
Whatever we were, we needed to become something else, more compassionate.
We needed to get better at unplugging our headphones and lending a helping hand, or we'd soon become the type of people that no one wants to sit with in the first place.