What Has Become of Empathy?

In the end of September of last year, I read an article in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof called "Just Look at What you Did."

Do not ignore this; it is a fine and moving article. Click on the link, read the piece. See if you don't cry.

Bless the young, the energetic, optimistic, brave souls like Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede. They are the ones who will save the world, if it isn't already too late.

Kristof's article had a powerful effect on me. After reading it, I clicked on this and that to learn more about the slum, Kibera, in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to find out what I could about Posner and Odede's program there called Shining Hope for Communities, something about which, having read the article, you, reader, now know. As one discovery leads to another on the Internet, I found these horrifying statistics here, provided by Shining Hope, which I have cut and pasted, for you to read. Do not ignore this either; these stats will blow your mind.

Life in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi, Kenya
  • The Kibera Slum of Nairobi houses 1.5 million people (nearly 50 percent of Nairobi's total population) on less than 5 percent of Nairobi's landmass.
  • The people of Kibera live in an area the size of Central Park.
  • It is one of the most densely populated places on the planet.
  • Life expectancy in Kibera is 30 years of age compared to 50 years of age in the rest of Kenya.
  • Half of all Kiberians are under the age of 15.
  • One out of 5 children in Kibera do not live to see their fifth birthdays.
  • There is no running water to most homes in Kibera. To obtain water, residents must purchase water from private vendors, paying two to ten times what is paid by a Nairobi resident outside the slums.
  • Kibera's 1.5 million residents share 600 toilets, meaning that on average one toilet serves 1,300 people.
  • "In many parts of the world women are routinely beaten, raped, or sold into prostitution.  They are denied access to medical care, education, economic and political power.  Changing that could change everything" -- The New York Times Magazine
  • 66 percent of girls in Kibera routinely trade sex for food by the age of 16. Many begin as early as age six.
  • Young women in Kibera Contract HIV at a rate 5 times that of their male counterparts.
  • Only 41 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls know that condoms are effective in preventing HIV transmission.
  • "Women's empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality.  It increases the chances of education for the next generation."  - United Nations Development Programme
  • Only 8 percent of girls in Kibera ever have the chance to go to school.
  • Educating a girl in places like Kibera means she will earn more, invest 90 percent of her earnings in her family, be three times less likely to become HIV positive, and have fewer, healthier children more likely to live past age 5.
I decided, immediately after reading Kristof's article and doing a little research, that I wanted to donate something and, after examining the various options, settled on sponsoring a girl. For $60 a month, I could provide a child with food, clothing, housing, education, medical services, and even aid in educating and eventually securing employment of some sort for her parent(s). I signed on to sponsor a girl until December of 2016. Or, that is the deal so far. (I am already wondering how one stops.) That donation (investment?) comes to a grand total of $3600. Over five years.

What Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner are doing in Kibera is huge; what I am doing requires no effort at all but may actually save a girl's life and perhaps affect the lives of her children, and that fact is stunning. But even more stunning is the fact that there are millions of her out there. And for the most part, no one of means even notices them. We float around in a sea of religious blather these days, but the simple instruction to do unto others is rarely heeded and seems quaint even to suggest. Somehow, we must rediscover empathy, which seems to have been lost amidst the junk that consumes our daily lives.

On Jan. 23, I received, by email, a photograph of the child I am sponsoring. Having the image of the one who, until the end of January, was merely an idea, has rattled me in an unexpected way. She is an actual person. I cannot stop staring at her. There is something about her that looks old. I showed her picture to two friends and asked them to guess her age. One said, "Twelve?", and the second murmured, "I don't know, fourteen?" Both looked hard before they guessed. She is five. Her name is Jackline, and she has large, dark, somber eyes that appear already to have seen too much and a serious stare that projects a combination of resignation and challenge. She is real to me now. I want to send her things, meet her, talk to her, hug her. I see her; both she and her people feel real to me. In fact, I want to go to her. But that's silly, isn't it?

At the plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative, in April of 2011, (you can watch the fascinating conversation here), Bill Clinton sat on a stage with Kennedy Odede and Sean Penn to discuss what we can do to help populations like the one in Haiti, especially post-earthquake and the one in Kibera. In his closing remarks, President Clinton said that there is a rural area in Africa to which he has gone to work on issues involving agriculture and AIDS, where the people, when they pass each other on the road and one says, " Hello," respond by saying, "I see you." They do not say, "Hi, how are you?" They say, "I see you."

The OED defines empathy as: the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. Empathy is, then, I suppose, truly seeing another person.

I do not know if we, humans, have ever been any different, but in this most modern era, we seem no longer to see each other. We see things -- oh, do we ever -- but not people. We see people who have things, but the ones who have nothing might as well be invisible. We live in a world in which a presidential candidate actually says that he doesn't care about the poor and then attempts to annul this inhuman and shocking statement by saying that he "misspoke." As if the words that came out of his mouth and his actual sentiments were related only by accident. Imagine what he could do personally, if he did care; imagine what the money that is being spent on buying us our next president could do if it were spent on Shining Hope for Communities and other such groups.

"He who saves one life saves the world entire," says the Talmud.

Here is a link that presents interviews by an organization called Echoing Green, a group that supports young entrepreneurs involved in social change. These interviews with Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede introduce us to them, to their thinking, their beliefs, their astonishing courage and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds against the achievement of their goals, to their efforts to save the world entire, one person at a time.

Both these two young people and their project inspire awe.

How do we get some of their virtue, some of their empathy and call to do good to rub off on those who do not even pretend to care about the poor?

How do we get some of their virtue, empathy, and determination to effect change to rub off on us... and stick?