You’re at the cash register in a convenience store. You give the clerk a $5 bill for your gum and bottled water, and he hands you back $0.86 in change. As you go to put it in your pocket, you notice the small box next to the register with the picture of a sad looking child on it.
“STOP CHILDHOOD HUNGER” it says just above the coin slot on the top of the box.
Do you put the $0.86 cents in the box or drop it in your pocket? More importantly, why did you make that choice?
THE DECLINE OF EMPATHY
If you had to guess, how many times are you asked for money in a given week? You might be surprised if you really consider it. Because it’s not just coin boxes at convenient stores.
First, there are direct asks from places like the charities you support, the colleges you attended, or the religious community to which you belong. There’s always a friend’s child selling popcorn for their scout troop, a relative raising money for a trip overseas, or or a political campaign in need of donations. These requests may not come every day, but they are still quite regular.
Then there are non-direct requests like when you notice a friend’s fundraiser on Facebook in honor of their birthday. Or you read an article about a cause you support and see a “DONATE” button at the bottom. The crowd-source website, GoFundMe, collects over $140 million in donations every month!
Requests for money come from every direction, and there is no real end in sight.
Ironically, some researchers believe that the more we promote the need for support, charity, and donations to organizations that care for the underserved, the more we lose our capacity for empathy. When every need is urgent, and when every matter is life-and-death, we eventually grow numb to all the noise. And once we grow comfortable tuning out people’s needs, our empathy atrophies and self-preservation takes charge of our minds.
But, if you are intentional, you can strengthen your empathy just like a muscle. And, if you are strategic, you can give charitably in ways that make a profound impact in the world without growing numb or cynical to the overwhelming number of requests.
Here are a few ways to strengthen your empathy and use your financial resources to impact your community.
1. YOU CAN’T DO EVERYTHING
First, give yourself a break.
As a physician or dentist, you earn more than most people. The average household income in the United States is $61,372, but the average starting salary for physicians is around $360,000. The reason you are (or will be) asked for money more than the average person is for the simple fact that you earn more.
Still, you are limited just like everybody else.
Yes, you earn more than most people, but in the grand scheme no one person earns a salary sizable enough to fix everything. You cannot cure every disease, adopt every child, donate to every politician, reverse global warming, provide drinkable water, solve conflict in the Middle East, end racism, and build a colony on Mars. The person who tries to rescue everyone and fund everything can cause just as much - if not more - harm than those who do nothing. Because eventually you make pledges and promises you’re unable to keep. Those who depend on your support will be left hanging when you’re stretched too thin. It’s possible to become so obsessed with helping others that you neglect your own life to the detriment of your health, relationships, and work.
It’s easy to be motivated by people who are passionate about their cause, but discernment is a critical skill that should be used often.
2. YOU CAN DO SOMETHING
Don’t be driven by a savior complex, but do listen to your conscience.
Have you ever sat at a stoplight and awkwardly avoided eye contact with someone on the corner holding a sign asking for money? Or have you been to a developing country and observed the deep poverty in which millions of people are forced to live every day?
These experiences can leave us feeling guilty for our wealth, privilege, and comfort. And while guilt is not a fun feeling, it is often a gift, a reminder of what we hold to be true and good. If you feel guilty about the man holding a sign on the corner, ask yourself why, and trust that instinct. You might feel guilty because deep down you don’t want anybody to live the sort of life he most likely lives, and you want to do something about it.
And that’s a good thing.
Let your guilt move you into action. Even a small gesture like giving the man on the corner a bottle of water, or contributing to a friend’s fundraiser can jumpstart the empathy muscle. One generous act leads to another and as your empathy grows, you move from a mindset of self-preservation to a mindset of compassion.
3. NARROW YOUR FOCUS
As you strengthen your empathy and remain attuned to people’s needs, it’s wise to narrow your focus down to a couple of causes you truly believe in and make a deep impact there.
If you could wipe one problem completely off the planet, what would you choose?
When you dedicate yourself to one or two causes that are of great importance to you, it is easier to filter through the noise of all the donation requests without growing cynical. You can say ‘no’ to people with a clear conscience knowing that you have already dedicated your charitable offerings to things that matter to you. This sort of tunnel vision protects you from burnout and cynicism, and continues to strengthen your empathy.
This is also where good financial planning comes in. If you know of a charity, organization, or even a person . you want to support, work those funds into your monthly budget so that the giving is automatic. You can also set up something called a Donor-Advised Fund in which your charitable donations grow along with the market, stretching the value of every dollar you contribute.
Some might be critical of this and say that you ought to do more than just “write a check.” But that’s nonsense. Ask the founder of any nonprofit how much they value the people who write the checks. If you feel compelled to give or do more - such as volunteer, serve on a board, be a mentor - then great! But as someone who earns a high annual income, you have the unique power to financially support the work that matters to you. Don’t let that opportunity go to waste.
DON’T WASTE YOUR MONEY
The vast majority of the problems faced by people in our world today cannot be solved with money alone. They require a multitude of strategies, people, policies, and systemic changes. But, without money, there are no people to carry these things out.
Our collective decline in empathy is not a permanent condition. We can change how we see each other and how we see the world with even the smallest displays of compassion. As the spiritual teacher, Fr. Richard Rohr famously says, “We don’t think our way into new ways of living, we live our way into new ways of thinking.”
If you find yourself growing numb and cynical toward all the needs you see in our world, maybe it’s time to live your way out of it. The money you earn can be used solely for yourself, or it can make the world better. Don’t waste it.
That $0.86 might not seem like a lot to you, but you never know how far it will go for someone who really needs it.