That’s right, for a bird. One tiny, meaningless little gull provoked a great deal of empathy among a group of strangers walking around a lake the other day, as Gail Rosenblum related the story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A gull was hanging from a lamppost, tangled in fishing line, frantically trying to escape. And the gathering crowd of people felt its distress, felt empathy and compassion for this poor little creature, and felt compelled to act. She tells an amazing story of how these strangers worked together, unwilling to just walk away until the bird was freed. The gull was thrashing about, more than 12 feet over their heads. They dragged one trash can over, and a brave boy climbed up but could not reach it. They dragged another trash can over and worked to put it atop the first. A tall man climbed up, pocketknife in hand, as the crowd shouted encouragement. At just the right moment, he was able to slash the line without getting hurt by the thrashing gull, and it took off, free. The people cheered, and then went back to walking around the lake, no doubt with big smiles on their faces.
What does this little story tell us? First, that in general, most human beings are naturally empathetic, not just toward other humans, but toward most living creatures. People did not walk by and leave the bird to struggle and die. They couldn’t. They felt compelled to act, in concert with strangers with whom they now had formed this bond of empathy.
Second, our feelings of empathy are more easily aroused by the one than by the many. We need that personal connection. If we read a story about an oil spill in the ocean, and read about a large group of seagulls getting covered with oil and dying, we feel bad about it–but in the abstract. If we see video of a person carefully scrubbing oil off a seagull’s body, we feel connected, and we feel empathy for that bird.
This is also true for our response to humans in distress. In the same issue of the Star Tribune, a large 5-part series on the disabled in Minnesota began. It included statistics on how many disabled adults work in very low-paying, dead-end jobs at “workshops”, doing things like putting gumballs in plastic sleeves all day for about $5 per hour. Our response to statistics like these is usually something like, “Oh that’s too bad.” And then we move on, and forget it. This series doesn’t let us do that. We meet real people who are living these difficult lives: people like Scott Rhude. We learn about him and his life: “Away from his job, Rhude has built an independent life. He pays his own rent and shares a house with three friends in Willmar, a town of 19,600 west of the Twin Cities. He sings karaoke, goes on double dates and started his own book club. His bedroom is packed with trophies from Special Olympics events. But Rhude’s pursuit of independence ends each morning when the city bus drops him off at West Central Industries, a sheltered workshop on the edge of town. From here, a van takes him to the Kandiyohi County landfill, where he spends the next five hours collecting trash on a hillside as big as two football fields. His job is futile. Prairie winds blow debris from a landfill nearby faster than he and his co-workers can collect it. In the gray sky overhead, a turkey vulture circles in wide loops. Rhude, 33, earns $2 an hour. He longs for more rewarding work — maybe at Best Buy, he says, or a library. But that would require personalized training, a job counselor and other services that aren’t available. ‘He is stuck, stuck, stuck,’ said his mother, Mary Rhude. ‘Every day that he works at the landfill is a day that he goes backward.'”
We can’t so easily walk away mentally when we connect with real individuals, anymore than the walkers around the lake could walk away from that struggling gull.