Sometimes it’s personal. A family member dies in hospice where their dignity was preserved in their final days. Other times it’s not as close to home. A television spot features a child with a cleft palette, a shivering dog or a malnourished baby.
Certain causes seem easier to sell. For example, the school you attended or a research center that is making advances in treating cancer.
Other causes may be tarnished by misunderstanding. For example, I’ve worked in the mental health and addiction fields since the early 1970s. It is in this arena that some believe that one’s ailments “above the neck” are self-inflicted, failures of character or poor parenting or lack of will power. Consequently, they deem them unworthy of philanthropy.
Nevertheless, I must recognize the compassion and generosity of those who do understand and support the work we do at North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center and many of our sister agencies. It is important to acknowledge that these givers are more than do-gooders, despite the good that they do.
They are smart and empathetic. They know that what we do is cost-effective, saving tens of millions of dollars by keeping troubled kids at home and out of costly institutional settings. They look into the eyes of their own children or grandchildren and feel a deep connection to all children.
Family members and friends have asked me what led to my choosing a career in human services, intimating that it’s not a financially lucrative path. My greatest influence was observing the profound impact of the kindness of others during my childhood and youth.
The father of my closest childhood friend died in the 1950s when we were little kids. We lost touch as we grew older. When his mom died, I sent him a sympathy card.
Some weeks later my friend wrote back to me. His words brought a lump to my throat.
“Dear Andy: What a surprise to hear from you! My mom’s death has caused me to spend hours thinking about my childhood. Some of my most fond recollections involve you and your family. Your father was the dad I didn’t have…”
Throughout my childhood, my parents, as well as other adults in my family, performed acts of profound kindness and generosity without fanfare or any expectation of anything in return. I married a woman who came from a similar family. Her parents took in their nieces after the untimely death of their mother.
Now I have found these people with giving hearts again among our board of directors and community supporters. What they have in common with my family is their empathy.
Government bureaucracies have no empathy. They have rules and regulations. One can only hope that legislation they enact is guided by values rooted in the felt needs of real people.
We cannot rely exclusively on government to take care of us. We must rely on one another. We cannot allow empathy to slip away, as it sometimes seems it is. The demise of empathy is perhaps the most perilous consequence in today’s divided America.
When all else fails, empathy is all we have to maintain a humane society.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.