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What Climbing the Social Ladder Does to Your Levels of Compassion


I stopped to look at a particular man the other day. But then I kept walking. I saw him from a distance and kept my eyes on him until I stood before him.

I was walking with a friend and we wanted to get home. We had just gone to church and were busy talking to each other and thinking about food.

He was sitting in front of an affluent shop. He was of an average size, and sat cross-legged with his head hung low – so much so that it nearly sat in his lap. A pile of books was on his right, a blanket on his left.

He was awake, but his shrunken frame looked tired. His hunched shoulders prevented onlookers from looking at him any more than he wanted them to. But they didn't want to look at him – they didn't even want to see him.

When I reached him, I paused and noticed he was reading something. He handled the book with absolute carefulness as his fingers stroked the page. He noticed my lack of moving feet and looked up—our eyes met... then I walked away.

His head hung so low. All he must see is shuffling feet; 'I have to be somewhere feet' I thought. I could never be one of them.

But I am.

I am the rich and he is the poor. We fit so snuggly into all of the preconceived notions.

There is one more thing I failed to mention at the beginning. That book he was reading was a Bible. His fingers were stroking the pages of the book of Mark.

As a foot-shuffler myself I don't think I have ever been so ashamed of my actions. I hated my perception of him: where I stood, where he sat and the distance between us created by the social divide and my antagonistic behaviour.

I knew what I should have done. I knew in that moment what God was directly prompting me to do and I desperately wanted to do something. But I didn't do anything.

Why we don't see

A significant body of research in recent years has indicated that as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings toward other people decline. As riches grow, people become less empathetic – less kind, generous and compassionate.

Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner ran several studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others.

In one study, Piff and Keltner discreetly observed driver behaviour at a busy four-way intersection. Their findings highlighted that luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting their turn at the intersection. This was found to be true for both male and female upper-class drivers.

Another study found that luxury car drivers were also more likely to speed past a pedestrian attempting to use a crossing, even after making eye contact with the pedestrian.

This doesn't mean we need to be particularly rich to be less compassionate towards others. This inclination can hold true in any situation in which one person has relatively more social status than another due to factors like race, gender, age, education, religion, ability, or education.

The widow and the orphan

No matter how much we observe, analyse or address this issue, the results are the same. We don't need to be wealthy to begin treating others with less compassion. Even with a deep awareness of Jesus' teaching, I am not immune to this effect.

The man I made eye contact with and ultimately walked away from is the one we talk about. He's also the downtrodden and oppressed one Jesus talks about. He is the hungry, widow, and orphan.

So right now I ask for forgiveness and desperately pray that God will give me another opportunity to demonstrate how much I love Jesus.

With a renewed perspective, I know that to exercise empathy – to offer food to the hungry, to read the Bible with a homeless man, to visit hurting friends, to clothe someone with limited possessions, to engage with the heart of justice – is to do all these things for Jesus.

To fight for the oppressed, defend the helpless, and paint the fingernails of homeless women – is to do it for Jesus. To offer compassion, friendship, yourself – is to do it for Him.

"And the King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'" Matthew chapter 25, verse 40.

This article is courtesy of Press Service International and originally appeared on Christian Today Australia.

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