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Opinions & Observations: Acts of service can help heal ’empathy deficit’ amid protests, COVID-19

June 5, 2020 Greg McKay
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Like many, I have watched with an ever-shifting mix of inspiration, concern and sadness as cities across the country bear witness to mass protests not seen in decades.

It has been inspiring to see communities rise up against systemic violence and oppression, though the near constant police sirens and circling helicopters outside lead to worry for those in the streets. In the end, each day is filled with sadness for individuals whose lives are consumed with fear, violence and feelings of being unheard.

But while protesters have rightly highlighted pervasive injustice in America, the current crises also lay bare the immense compassion and empathy deficit in this country. The same instincts that have led some individuals to resist measures necessary to slow the spread of the Coronavirus make it difficult for others to fully comprehend why videos of Black men being killed at the hands of police are so terrorizing.

Without an ability to understand and share feelings of another human who is suffering, it is difficult to grasp the gravity of what it means for a relative or friend to fall ill with a potentially deadly virus or to see a member of your community die at the hands of police if these crises are affecting people who don’t look like you.

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Though public protest and civil disobedience can lead to positive systemic change, the compassion and empathy gap can only be addressed through individual acts of service that lead to growth and understanding. To be clear, more people caring for others will not eradicate racism and the pervasive issues it enables, but acts of service foster compassion and empathy by helping people see the common humanity in someone who may have a very different lived experience.

Truly committed service to others, hopefully someone who doesn’t look like you, talk like you or share your view of the world, opens up an opportunity to understand in a small way what it is like to walk in their shoes. That level of empathy and compassion has been in short supply of late and goes a long way to explaining why it has been so difficult to unite behind fighting the global health pandemic and the national epidemic of police violence.

In some ways, it is easy to post about injustice on social media, join a crowd and support the movement. Finding ways to make a consistent impact on an individual level requires humility, vulnerability and commitment. It involves more than just a couple weekends a year posing for photographs at a local soup kitchen, but rather a dedication to making service, as Muhammad Ali suggested, a part of the rent you pay for your room on earth.

I was struck recently by the words of 63-year-old blues musician Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen who holds a daily vigil of sorts singing songs outside the Louisiana care home where her brother is confined to a bed. Mother Blues put it this way: “Everybody has a currency, and everybody’s currency is different. My currency is my voice. You don’t have to do what I do but do something nice for somebody else. And that makes you feel good. And that’s contagious by itself.”

Truly impactful service requires thinking about what your human currency is and how it can contribute to better the lives of people around you. It could be lending a hand to build, clean, paint or restore physical space, or helping to teach, inform or entertain. Listening, talking and comforting are all areas of high need in the era of social distancing, and there are a growing number of food insecure New Yorkers who need help.

Whatever form it takes, committed service to others can help build a reservoir of trust in society that helps us to see our common humanity and solve issues without division.

Greg McKay is a Fort Greene resident and lawyer.

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  1. Judy Willig

    “Listening, talking and comforting are all areas of high need in the era of social distancing, and there are a growing number of food insecure New Yorkers who need help.” If you’re looking for an opportunity to provide service to others, check out the Heights and Hills website: and offer some time to connect with older neighbors who are now socially isolated as they shelter in place in their homes.

    • MissionControl

      You might not realize it but plenty of your older neighbors are doing just fine without you bothering them. Probably better.

      Find yourself an single-mother of three and really do them a good deed.