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Empathy Can't Be Taught

This piece was originally published in The Jewish Advocate

Do you think that you really understand homelessness? Before this summer, I would have said that I did. I was wrong.

Homeless means "lacking a home." I always thought it was that simple. It is more than that though. It is a story, typically a sad one. But more importantly, it is a problem that is not going away by being ignored.

I am a rising junior in high school. This summer, I participated in an eye-opening program at Brandeis University called Impact Boston that brings teenagers from around the country together to work on community service projects. I had the opportunity to experience the feeling of homelessness.

For one day, I got the chance to experience what it's like to panhandle in the Boston Commons. The pedestrians had differing reactions. Some offered money and looked at me with great pity. A few took the time to sit down and talk with me because they were shocked that I was “homeless.” But most ignored me and avoided eye contact as if they wanted to ignore homelessness in society as a whole.

When the people who took the time to speak with me were taken aback that I would choose to have such an experience (after I explained the program to them), I knew that they didn't really understand it. Most of the reactions were discouraging, except for one man, who told me: "I wish there were more people like you in this world. You are doing a great thing." It was the people who disapproved who opened my eyes to reality, but the ones who praised me, gave me hope for society.

During this experience, I felt things that I was not used to feeling. I felt invisible. I grew up in a privileged world where I was always appreciated and noticed. For the first time in my life, I felt pure rejection. These are the feelings that occur when someone completely ignores you and refuses to recognize you as a person. When I first found a spot to sit, I sat down and put out my cup, but I was too embarrassed to hold up my sign. I sat there for a minute, nervous and scared. I knew that I would be safe, but felt ashamed of my actions. Either people would believe I was mocking homelessness, or they would believe that I was actually homeless. I ended up being completely embarrassed by the way that people ignored me. Not solely because of how they made me feel, but because I knew that I would have reacted in the same way before this day. At that moment, I knew that my perspective had changed forever. I did not realize how much I could really impact the community, but I knew that the experience already had made an impact on me.

Only a few people acknowledged me on this day. I give them credit. They were only a handful compared to the thousand who probably passed me that day. They only did so because I did not fit their stereotypical image of a homeless person. One girl I saw had a sign that said "You don't have to look homeless to be homeless" - and in that moment, I realized that it was completely true. The goal of my simulation was not to show or prove to anyone that I was actually homeless, but to spread awareness that anyone could be.

Empathy can be defined as “the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person's feelings.” Many people will claim to empathize with others, even with the homeless population. I learned quickly that it is not that simple. What I felt during the experience is so far off from my general perception of homelessness that I believe that the only way to really understand anything is to experience it.

In textbooks, we learn about definitions and statistics of homelessness, but facts and numbers only create a feeling of pity for those who are homeless. In real life experiences, we learn empathy, which is the greatest lesson of all - something that most people will never step out of their comfort zone to try, but I could not be gladder that I did.

When I first sat down, I had no idea how much I would learn and the impact it could make on me and others. It opened my eyes to a world that I often ignored and forced me to focus on the reality that lies on the streets of my very own city. The goal was not to fix anything, because some problems are bigger than just a small group of teenagers volunteering for a week. We spread awareness to all of those that saw us. I finally had the chance to feel true empathy for these people. I can no longer ignore any homeless person that I see and I have found my way to help.

Human kindness is something we can all show, and it gives the homeless one thing that is free, yet priceless: hope.

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