The Empathy Gap I Didn't Know I Had

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s a character trait that I generally would say I have. So when I was invited to participate in the Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE) hosted at Watermark, I thought my empathy might shine.

I overestimated myself.

COPE simulates one month in the life of a person facing poverty, providing insight into the lives of individuals and families in our community. Your role in the simulation may be running the convenience store, or you might be a single mom working two jobs to support three kids. Your experience is simultaneously individualistic and connected to the community of participants.

Clearly, no one believes that a simulation gives anyone the full feeling of living in poverty! But the experience did provide at least three ways I can better empathize with those in poverty.

1. Generation to Generation

“I was so focused on meeting financial needs that most of the time I forgot I was supposed to attend to my children (let alone invest in them).” – COPE Participant A

My experience showed me what “generational poverty” looks like on a day-to-day basis.

The participant quoted above was given (in the COPE experiment) a wife and child - while working full-time, maintaining his sobriety through Narcotics Anonymous, and balancing debt payments. During the simulation he paid almost all bills and managed to scrape by, but he did so at a relational cost. All prompts he received to invest in his son or develop their relationship were sidestepped for other priorities.

Later, his “son” in the simulation shared that his COPE experience was spent running errands! Most disconcerting, the son shared his most frequent interactions were with a criminal looking for opportunities to disrupt the community.

I realized better…

  • how a youth could get trapped in the same negative patterns as his/her parents
  • how minimal parental investment could impact someone’s trajectory
  • how losing parental bonding opportunities could impact a kid’s own relational goals and expectations moving forward

2. Scamming the System

“I immediately starting working to determine how I could work the system to my benefit.” COPE Participant B

Can you believe the conniving heart in the statement above? I was shocked!

But here’s my moment of authenticity – Participant B was me!

I was cast in the role of banker, so I didn’t participate as a person facing poverty. But I quickly realized that if I had, I would have sought to scam the system – bigtime! As participants became flustered and overwhelmed, they might drop their bus card, carelessly leave cash on a table, or lose other resources that could be pawned. From my perch at the “bank,” I started playing a mental game to see how I could have circumvented the system.

This helped me realize better…

  • how circumstances could cause an individual to question the “ethical” path to an end goal
  • how quickly someone might justify wrong decisions when facing difficult circumstances
  • that people’s past decisions – and the consequences they face – may have been wrong, but I can still empathize with the situations they faced

3. Go to Church?

“The church was the most useless resource.”- COPE Participant C

Wow. This statement has stayed with me more clearly than any other.

As Participant C described his anxiety, frustration, and desperation to make ends meet, he knew he “should” engage with the church. However, he also saw church drop as a priority (and even drop entirely) as he wrestled with how to make rent, provide food for his family, and find enough time to complete what life required… not what he wanted life to include, but what it required. If the church was not going to meet an immediate need, then he wouldn’t go.

This helped me consider…

  • that someone who knows and loves Jesus may feel like life doesn’t afford them time to step into a church
  • that it’s all the less likely a non-believer will see the church as a valuable resource
  • that I often need to go to the poor, rather than expecting them to come inside our doors

You likely interact regularly with people facing low-income struggles. The personal circumstances that bring someone to that place may be different, and the season may look different than you expect. But for these individuals, poverty is far more than a “simulation.”

You face your own non-simulation each day. You determine how you will love and care for people facing poverty. How will you engage with them in a way that conveys empathy?

To learn more about getting involved with people who live the struggles of poverty, visit www.watermark.org/impact.

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