Thursday, October 18, 2007

Excess sympathy

I've been noticing about myself recently that little things that people do that make themselves seem vulnerable make me feel sad. I don't know what it is about vulnerability, but I see the littlest things and sometimes I project a whole, tragic existence onto a person and feel terribly bad for them. Even something as little as seeing someone cough.

The weird thing is that I do all of the things that make me sad when I see other people do them. I cough, I sneeze, I rub my eyes, I often seem tired, sometimes I snag my clothes on things. And none of those things makes me feel bad for myself at all. I feel totally fine while I'm doing them and not in need of sympathy or anything else. And yet when other people do those things, I feel sorry for them. Even though in my head I know they don't need anyone feeling sorry for them, or if they do it's not because they're coughing or whatever.

When I was in high school, my mom had this idea that she was going to slip greeting cards with $20 bills in them to random people without them seeing. Except that she wasn't the type of person to actually do that, so I was supposed to be the one who actually snuck up to the person and somehow slipped them the card. The first time was around the holidays, so the card read "Happy New Year." We were at the grocery store and my mom picked out a guy whose cart she wanted me to put the card in when he wasn't looking.

But I got shy all of a sudden, and worried that he would see me and think I was crazy. It was an older man, tall but slightly stooped. He was wearing an acrylic sweater and polyester pants and he was slowly examining canned vegetables. I told my mom I didn't think he looked poor, and I meant it. He just seemed like a guy in pants and a sweater to me, deciding what groceries to purchase. But now, in retrospect, I realize that my mom was probably right--his clothes were clearly quite inexpensive and also not very warm considering that it was winter, and he was probably not scrutinizing the canned green beans out of mere curiosity but rather making a decision about the price he would have to pay for them.

The memory of that man and his can of green beans and his acrylic sweater, which I can still picture perfectly in this kind of buttery yellow colour, makes me really sad. It makes me wish I had just gotten myself together and stuck that card in his shopping cart. It was just $20. But I bet he could have used it, and I wish I had done it.


  1. That's quite a thing your mom wanted to do. I've never heard of anyone doing that. While I don't get compelled to hand out $20 bills, I do know what you mean. I sometimes will feel sad for random person in the store, based on their expression or something in their cart. I felt bad for someone who submitted a job application yesterday knowing that our state's economy is so bad that the people who already work here are lucky to have jobs; we will doubtfully hire anyone new soon.

  2. My mom is like this too, except she usually finds a way to give the thing herself (thank GOD).

    Sounds like you are both very empathetic, which is a unique gift. Not many people are like that, in my experience.

  3. Believe it or not, but empathic emotions (primarily embarrassment though) was the topic of my thesis in grad school. It's completely fascinating and actually serves a evolutionary purpose. Yes, even apes do it. I love this topic!

  4. i think this is gonna try it this weekend!!! cool.. now i have weekend plans!!

  5. So thoughtful. I feel the same way you do - I feel bad for people I come across too. Like the 80 year old man who works in my post office, surely not because he loves it, but because he can't afford to retire. I just want to go give him a hug or bring him coffee or something!

  6. awww that is the cutest maybe saddest story. i like giving big amounts (well big to me- a poor college kid who will have to deal with loan payments in less than 2mo) because i would rather give everything i have to make someone's day rather than keep it to myself who never gives it the appreciation it deserves.

    and stephanie's comment reminds me how my grandma still keeps up with her ulpolstery business to afford the medical bills because my grandpa has severe parkinson's disease and can't afford to get an at-home nurse aid. :'(

    but maybe since you brought up the guy buying canned goods- make sure to donate some canned goods he was looking at that day as a symbolic way to give back and help those who can't afford food. just an idea.

  7. What a wonderful thing to have learned from your mother! I think it is a great idea, even if it does require a lot of nerve.

    On a couple of occasions I made "gift baskets" with old sweaters, gloves, hats, etc. for a couple of the "regulars" -- homeless fellas at McPherson Square. Scared the shit out of me, but I am glad I did it.

    When people strike me as lonely I get unbelievable sad. I will sometimes start crying, right there. It is little things, something that makes me think they are alone and no one cares about their well being. Oh, I am getting teary just thinking about it.

  8. That is such a cool idea of your mom's!

    I love reading those "Random Acts of Kindness" books. It really gives you hope for humanity.

    (One time in college, I decided to tape a bunch of quarters to the pop machine so the next 10 people would get a free drink. I hid behind a corner just to see what would happen, and the very first person was some bitchy sophomore who hated everyone and complained about everything in the dorms. I was really disappointed, but maybe being nice to her made her a little nicer to someone else that day. At least that's what I hope happened.)

  9. I really like that idea of slipping 20s to people.

    When I have the means to do that, I will.