Empathy has power to connect us to others

This is a copy of the ad that Abraham Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon ran in the Vermilion County Press in 1852.

When I turned 10, my father drove me into the country to a shooting range. Having drilled me in gun safety, it was time to shoot.

“Let’s start with the standing position,” he said, as he shouldered his single-shot 22 rifle. “Hold the stock snugly, close your left eye, set up your sights and slowly squeeze the trigger.” He loaded the rifle and carefully handed it to me.

I sighted on the target he had made — a big block of wood — and squeezed the trigger. Bam!

“Did I hit it?” I asked. “Let’s see,” he replied.

Sure enough, the bullet had struck the target, digging deep into the wood. As we walked back, I asked, “How far can a 22-bullet travel?” “One mile,” he replied.

My ensuing surge of power was doused by a chilling thought: What if I missed the target and instead of a block of wood, my bullet slammed into soft, human flesh? Stunned, I realized how deadly the consequences of my actions could be.

You are about to meet a boy named Abe whose actions — just like a rifle bullet — will put someone at risk for death. Was he a reckless kid, or was his “Me first” culture to blame? Let us find out.

On a cold and rainy night in March, Abe’s bedroom walls were pierced by the shrieks of his mother: “Loser, how many jobs have you lost now?”

As she lambasted his stepfather, Abe, knowing what was coming next, snatched his pre-packed backpack, slipped out his bedroom window, jumped on his bike and headed east to his paternal grandmother’s home. A perk of living in the small town of Covington, Ind., was how close everything was. Using his own key, he opened the door: “Grandma, it’s me.”

“Oh my, oh my, as I live and die, if it isn’t my favorite grandchild, Abraham Stanton Stark!”

With a smirk, Abe replied, “I’m your only grandchild.” A well-rehearsed dance between an 11-year-old boy and his grandmother took another spin on the ballroom floor of life.

“I love you Abe,” she whispered in his ear as she hugged him. “Love you too,” he replied.

Unlike 66-year-old Kate Stark, Abe would sleep well that night. Kate tried to sleep, but her mind was a cyclone. “My son, Abe’s father, abandoned Abe.” Abe’s mother, Vicky, a vodka-viper, keeps Abe only as a pet to fool the town.

“How can I, an old woman with heart disease, protect Abe?” An oaken voice rose up — “Stay alive until your grandson is old enough to tell the court where he wishes to live.”

Next day, 7 a.m.: Abe awoke to the smell of bacon. “Homework comes after breakfast, then we clean the castle — right, Abe?” His mouth was too stuffed with food to speak, so he nodded yes with his head. When he sat down at his desk, he began to whine, “Online school is stupid — when COVID-19 shut down the school, why didn’t they just stop everything?”

“Quiet,” Kate snapped. “I’ll be checking your homework, so make sure it’s done correctly.” Two hours later, Abe finished his lessons.

“Nice job, Abe, now choose your weapon” — in one hand she held a mop, in the other, a vacuum cleaner. Abe picked the vacuum.

Kate had taught him the skills of a good work ethic, but you had to keep an eye on him. Luckily, Kate had eyes all around her head. After the house was cleaned and they finished lunch, Abe was allowed to go to his room and play video games.

Later that evening, he got a text from his best friend, Nathan: “Guess who is here — Stephen — come over tonight after midnight, my parents will be gone.” Abe texted back, “Can’t, COVID-19 lockdown rules — if I leave home grandma will kill me!”

Nathan did not reply. The longer Abe waited, the worse his stomach burned. Stephen, Nathan’s 25-year-old brother, had been like a father to Abe: he taught him how to ride a bike and how to fish on the Wabash River. Abe had not seen Stephen since he moved to New York City two years ago.

At 12:10 a.m., Abe heard tapping on his window. It was Nathan. “Come out, Stephen’s here.”

Abe slipped out the window and joined Nathan as they walked up to a car with three men inside. “There’s my fishing buddy,” roared the voice of Stephen. When Abe squeezed into the small car, he thought, “Say goodbye to social distancing.”

They drove to Nathan’s and once there, Stephen rolled up joints of pot. With a wicked grin, he said, “Party time!” Abe had never smoked pot, but he took two puffs. He was racked by coughing. Everyone laughed. At 3:10 a.m., Abe returned home.

Three days later: “Get up, Abe,” Kate said firmly. Abe’s eyes were bloodshot, and he had no appetite. She let him sleep.

By 10:30 a.m., he was running a fever. The next day, Abe’s temperature climbed to 103 degrees; he had a bad cough, body aches and a rash on his toes. Kate called her physician, who instructed her to bring Abe to be tested for COVID-19. Abe tested positive, and so did Kate. Both were admitted into the hospital. Two days later, Kate was put into the Intensive Care Unit.

Three weeks later: Kate and Abe were discharged together, and they returned to Kate’s home. That night, Abe slept in his own bed, with his own fluffy pillows. He dreamed he was riding his bike on the road which led to the bridge that spanned the Wabash River. A strong tailwind began to blow which pushed him faster and faster.

Suddenly, he was airborne. Higher and higher he flew. As the land below shrunk down into green and brown postage stamps, and the river became a thin ribbon, Abe felt a burst of freedom. It was as if a great sack of guilt had been lifted off his boy-sized shoulders.

The next morning, Kate sat Abe down. “Hard news Abe, it’s about your mother.” Abe asked, “She wants me to come back home, right?”

Kate took his hands in hers and softly replied, “Your mother died last night.” Abe gasped, “COVID killed her?” “No, she overdosed on drugs.”

Three days later: On a sunny afternoon, Abe returned from fishing. He opened the front door and raised his voice, “I’m home, grandma.” When Kate appeared, he smiled and said, “Oh my, oh my, as I live and die, if it isn’t my favorite grandmother, Kaitlyn Elizabeth Stark!” With a smirk she replied, “I’m your only grandmother!”

Conclusion: To see through the eyes of another, to revel in a friend’s joy, to witness tears falling from the face of a loved one and feel them as if they were your very own. That is empathy, and without it we are me-monsters who disregard the consequences of our actions.

Empathy turns “me” into “we,” by its power to connect us to a friend, a family, a nation, and a world. Our home world which spins in the night on an orb named Earth.

(The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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