My partner and I took our teenage kids to Vancouver last weekend for a big-city adventure, forgetting that it happened to coincide with black friday. Despite the fact that I visit Vancouver several times a year, I’m always taken aback by the images of wealth and poverty side by side — homemade cardboard box homes tucked into vacant storefronts, a stone’s throw away from Gucci, Burberry and Chanel. Somehow it all co-exists with itself, the beggar holding the door to a shop selling a $2,300 t-shirt. As for me, I am unable to shake my pain at seeing a person in need of shoes, a warm coat, a hug, alongside so much opulence.
That empathetic response is innate in all of us, even when we are not aware of it. I was recently reading a study on empathy involving rats that described how one rat would feel stress observing another rat in pain or discomfort. Another study showed how rats would go to help another in distress, and even share their food. Our ability to feel pain and suffering is part of our biology. A baby wouldn’t survive in the world without their parents’ empathy.
When we are able to turn away, to shut out the suffering of others by turning off the TV, or turning our heads, we still register the suffering of others. I think we are often unaware of just how much the suffering of others affects us, how it contributes to our anxiety and depression. Like the rats, we feel others’ pain and suffering.
One of the best ways to respond to suffering and separation is to act — to offer someone a smile, a warm embrace, a loonie, a kind gesture. This holiday season and new year I encourage you to give the gift of yourself, in big and small ways. Seize every opportunity to reach out and connect with others, to listen, to help, to get involved through acts of service and kindness.
In this spirit of giving we are once again supporting the Dandelion Society this December by collecting warm blankets, sleeping bags, and coats, to help folks in need insulate against the wind, rain, and cold. We need your blankets, sleeping bags, and warm winter gear!