This summer I flew down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to attend the University of Alabama Honors Academy. For a week, I lived in the UA Honors College dorms and attended college-level classes and lectures. There were many fascinating lectures, but only one will stay with me for the rest of my life – in a very real sense, it has changed the way I look at the world, and my place and purpose in it.
It was the morning lecture on the second day of the program –Stephen Black, the Director of the University of Alabama Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, was the speaker. He began by describing a conversation he once had with the late Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Fuller told him that he was proud of his life’s work, but that he was increasingly concerned with the success and legacy of his organization. “How could you be?” Mr. Black asked. “Habitat for Humanity has helped millions of people. It’s one of the most successful charities in the world.”
“It’s true that we’ve helped a lot of folks,” Fuller replied. “We’ve helped over four million people build homes over the years. But since I founded this organization in 1976, the rate of homelessness in America has increased, not decreased. Fewer people own homes now than they did then, and more people are living on the street. How can we look at that and say that we’ve been truly successful?”
Mr. Black looked around the room. “You know,” he said, “your generation is the most charitable, most service-oriented generation in history. No American generation has ever been so enthusiastic about volunteer work and community service … But the fact is, in today’s world, that’s just not enough. I hope that your generation can avoid making the same mistake that other generations have made – mistaking sympathy for empathy. And that starts with each of you as individuals.”
I’ve been turning that thought over in my mind ever since. Ours is the most sympathetic generation in history, but at the same time it is among the least empathetic. Sympathy identifies a problem. Empathy compels us to demand a solution. Sympathy eases pain. Empathy demands an end to pain. In the same way, charity treats the symptoms of a profound illness in society, but true empathy demands something greater. When we realize that the Third World is also part of our world, that “those poor children” are our children, that violence, poverty, and injustice are too often a result of our own ignorance and our own apathy, then we can no longer merely donate an hour of our time or a few dollars of our money and feel that we have done enough. The world will demand more of us, so we must demand more of ourselves.
I’ve decided to do my part to meet that generational challenge – to understand people rather than feel sorry for them, to solve problems rather than treat symptoms, to act on empathy rather than feel sympathy. Whether I am organizing community service events through NHS, raising funds with the MSHS Nerdfighter Club to help build wells in Ethiopia, or simply trying to act more selflessly and responsibly in my daily life, I always find Mr. Black’s words in the back of my mind. It is easy to feel powerless before such great responsibility – I know that there are many days when I worry that despite all my efforts to the contrary, I will not succeed, that, to borrow from David Mitchell, “my life may amount to nothing more than one drop in a limitless ocean.”
“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”