We Have Lost Our Empathy

I looked down in disbelief. My shoes had been stuffed into the bottom of the toilet and were covered in urine. My classmates stood laughing outside of the bathroom stall. Tears filled my eyes but I angrily wiped them away. I would not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing my pain.

I reached down into the murky water and fished out both of my shoes. Opening the stall door, I walked through the crowd of middle school girls and made my way to the sink. I tried to ignore their insults as I rinsed their urine from my sneakers.

Moving to a new town and starting a new school is never easy. It is even harder if your parents lose their jobs and you are kicked out of your house. If you sleep in a tent and eat at the soup kitchen. If you are one bad break away from becoming a statistic.

I arrived to school every morning in our broken-down beater of a car. The exhaust billowed from the tail pipe and the headliner sagged low. I would climb out of the backseat wearing my Salvation Army cast-off clothing and hurry into my first period class, praying no one noticed me.

But of course they did. They noticed me.

Middle School is a hunting ground for misfits, for oddballs, for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. I was the perfect target. Name-calling. Shaming. Exclusion. These weapons were used against me daily.

The urine-soaked shoes were the coup de grace. The popular girls waited until I changed out for PE, and then they dropped my shoes into the toilet. One by one, they took their turn urinating. Gleefully, they waited for my return and watched my reaction.

As a middle school girl, these kinds of incidents were crushing.

As a mother to three middle school girls, these stories are the perfect fodder for life-lessons on empathy.

I tell my daughters of the urine-soaked shoes, of the name-calling, of my shame at my living situation, my clothing, my lack of money. I tell them how those girls made me feel. I remind my daughters they are better than that.

And they ARE. They are BETTER than that.

Aren’t we all better than that?

I would like to think so, but sometimes I am not so sure.

[tweet_dis]Empathy is too often a lost emotion. It has been replaced by self-righteousness and indignation.[/tweet_dis]


My hometown has an epidemic of homelessness. The transient community seems to be growing daily. We see them congregating under the bridges, pushing their shopping carts down the sidewalk, sneaking into the bushes at the back of our neighborhoods, sleeping on the benches at the bus stop.

Something needs to be done. Yet no one can agree on what that something is.

How do we best address this problem?

Do we need more services at the homeless shelter? More early intervention to prevent homelessness? More police? More arrests? More jail time? More food banks?

I do not have all of the answers. But I do know one thing.

We need more empathy.

I read the news stories and I scroll through social media and I think we are acting like a bunch of middle school girls. The name-calling. The shaming. The exclusion.

Tweaker. Druggie. POS.


Hurting human being.

These are REAL people with REAL lives and REAL problems.

Our REAL solutions need to begin with empathy. With kindness.

We can’t paint the entire homeless community with one broad brush stroke. When we look closer, we will realize the picture is made up of individuals who are very much like you and me.


“My parents died when I was 18 months old. I moved here to live with my aunt and uncle. Once, when I was little, my aunt took me to the mall and bought me some new shoes. That was a happy memory. But my uncle used to beat my aunt. I would run to my room, put earphones on and curl up in a ball so that I couldn’t hear it. I went to foster care when I was 6. I aged out when I was 18. All I had when I left was $5 and a backpack of stuff. I’ve been homeless ever since.”


“This is Greg. Also known as Pops, Santa or Grandpa. Greg is a colorblind artist, a college graduate, and a fantastic storyteller. He is 69 years old. Greg stopped drawing after his wife left him for his dealer years ago. Greg is a meth addict.

As we all know, many of our homeless citizens are addicts. This comes as no surprise. As I’m taking part in various conversations surrounding homelessness I am hearing a recurring request. Many of you would like to weed out the drug users from the “deserving poor”, and focus our efforts on helping those who don’t have substance abuse problems. I understand this request because I’ve wondered the same thing.

But the other day I watched a TED talk about addiction that made me wonder if everything we thought we knew about addiction is wrong.

The man in the TED talk describes two experiments involving rats and heroin. In Experiment #1, the rats were placed in a box by themselves with one vial of water and another vial of water laced with heroin. In this experiment, every single rat eventually became addicted to the heroin water and used until they died. Simple enough, right?

All of our modern drug legislation is based on this experiment. Drugs are bad! Anybody who uses will become addicts! So let’s criminalize the behavior, make drugs difficult to obtain, and lock up anyone who uses. Makes sense, right? Easy.

The only problem with this line of attack is that it is completely ineffective. It doesn’t work. We all know it doesn’t work. Addicts never get help, their criminal record makes it nearly impossible for them to reenter society, and meanwhile, our jails get a never ending stream of revenue cycling through their doors.

Let’s take a look at the second rat experiment in the TED talk.

In Experiment #2, the rat is placed in a box that is essentially rat paradise. Their habitat has the water and the heroin water, but it also has colorful balls, tunnels, food, and most importantly OTHER RATS. While all of the isolated rats in Experiment #1 became addicts, none of the rats who were part of the rat community became addicts.


So, what if we’ve been looking at addiction all wrong? What if our addicted loved ones are really in desperate need of connection rather than the Scarlet Letter of a jail sentence? What if they have spent their lives carrying around back breaking burdens and have no skills to cope? And what if many of us have been spending our lives living in rat paradise peering down at our addicts in isolation saying, “just stop using, dummies. It’s not that hard.”

Did you know 90% of homeless people have experienced high levels of trauma as children? That statistic is not a coincidence. That statistic is our wake up call.

I’m meeting so many homeless drug addicts, but after our interviews I don’t see them as drug addicts. I see a 9 year old girl who never did well in school because she was always hungry. I see a 7 year old boy who joined a gang and started using heroin while his parents were too strung out to notice. I see a little 6 year old boy kneeling on raw pinto beans while his dad whipped him. I see the teenager who was sexually molested by the very people who were supposed to protect her. I see the 10 year old boy who watched as his dad’s body was being washed out of a truck.

While talking with these people, I have had to sit with uncomfortable realization that their story could have been my story.

I know loving an addict is hard. I know many of them lie and steal and manipulate. I can see why so many of you are frustrated. I also know that the culture of anger in our town is creating more of a divide and further isolating the very people who are in desperate need of us. Science has proven that they will die without connection. They will die. On our watch. While we look down from our respective paradises.

I’m not suggesting that we start throwing money at people or creating expensive government programs. I AM suggesting that we cut through some of this anger with kindness. That’s it. Kindness.

I know we will have negative experiences with our homeless addicts. I know I have. But I hope our hearts can stay soft and kind, even when an addiction has swallowed our homeless loved ones whole. The real them is hiding in there somewhere, buried under years of trauma and drug use. My hope is that we can create a culture of kindness that they’ll want to join when they are ready to come out of hiding.

I’ll be right here waiting for them. I hope you will, too.”


(Thank you to People of Redding for providing these pictures and stories.)

Let’s set an example for our children. No more name-calling. We have the ability to create a culture of kindness. THIS is how we begin. THIS is where we start.

Let us build our solutions on a foundation of empathy.




4 thoughts on “We Have Lost Our Empathy

  1. kris

    Oh my goodness Natalie!
    Thank you so much for this. I am in tears. Tears! YEs, it is SO easy to sit back and say “They made their bed…” but I do understand that there are stories behind every situation. No child says “When I grow up I want to be a drug addicted prostitute.”
    Compassion. Kindness. Empathy. Encouragement.
    These are the things that we all need, especially when we believe we don’t deserve them and/or will never get them.
    Goodness, this is an awesome and challenging post.
    Thank you.
    Thank you.
    I love your heart!

  2. Nicole

    I have watched that TED talk. I have watched many of them. I love learning from them. I often drive through downtown and look at the homeless and can’t help but think “that used to be an innocent child and something or someone stole that innocence and they never got it back.” I drive through town everyday and pray for our city. I am frustrated, as many are, with the crime that comes with drugs or the filth that is left behind by some of our homeless. This was a great write up about looking through all that and seeing human kindness. Your soul is beautiful!

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