by S.M. Chen  |  21 July 2022  |

I count it a privilege when I am asked to tend my 11 year-old namesake grandson. His is an inquiring mind, and I await what percolates just below the surface with an admixture of anticipation and delight.

When I was last asked to spend time with him, I decided to broach weighty matters. I think he is old enough to handle them.

I told him, in my opinion, Matthew 25 was as much part of the gospel as was John 3:16. So he got out his copy of Holy Writ and I read to him. After describing what was predicted by the Master at the Judgment, when the Judge divides people into 2 groups — those to His right the sheep and those to His left the goats — the Judge addresses each. He says to those in the goat group: 

“Inasmuch as you did not visit Me when I was in prison, clothe Me when I was naked, visit Me when I was sick, feed Me when I was hungry, give Me to drink when I was thirsty; so shall your fate be accordingly.”

In that group are many who think they are in the wrong group. Some have preached, some have wrought miracles, and have even cast out demons. They were, to all intents and purposes, saints to those who thought they knew them. “But,” they protest, “When did we not feed You, clothe You, and give You drink, and visit You? We don’t recall these deficiencies.”

And the Almighty says: “Inasmuch as you didn’t do it to the least of my children, your brethren, you didn’t do it unto Me.”

The Almighty exposes them for what they are: wolves in sheep’s clothing.

To the other group, those to His right, He says, “Because you fed Me, clothed Me, and visited Me, I consign you to the fate that appropriately awaits you.” And members of this group say, “When did we feed You, and clothe You, and visit You? Pardon us, but we don’t recall doing so.”

They seem genuinely perplexed. The Almighty says, “In doing this to the least of my children, your brethren, you did it unto Me. Enter through the gates to Paradise, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

There will be not a few surprises that day. Some good. Some not so good.

After reading the last part of Matthew 25, I was getting ready to close the book when my grandson said one word. When he uttered it, I knew my job was done.

He said, “Empathy.”

I didn’t know till then that he knew the word, that it had become part of his lexicon, and sunk into consciousness. But my world is not his world. It is his mother (my daughter) who volunteers at his school and is more aware of what he learns.

And of course he was right. What separates the figurative sheep from the metaphorical goats is indeed empathy. The ability to feel what it is like to walk in another’s sandals, even though we may not have donned them.

That is where imagination comes into play. And no less than an observer than physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) opined, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The man in the dead car

When I went out to my car for a seat cushion, the chair in the office being thinly padded, I noticed another car, near the end of the line, with its hood up and driver car door open. A set of jumper cables were connected to the car battery, but the other ends of the cables were dangling on the sidewalk, unconnected to anything.

The car was unoccupied. I called out but no one answered. I noticed a hubcap was missing and there was a crack in the windshield.

When I went out again for lunch, the car was still there. This time there was somebody in the car. He was middle aged, unshaven and a bit unkempt.

(His appearance, let me be clear, bothered me not at all.)

I asked, “Do you need help?” “I can’t start my car,” he replied. “Is your battery dead?” “Maybe.” “Let’s see if we can fix it.”

I carry a set of sturdy jumper cables in my trunk. There was no space to the side of his car, so I parked on the other side, facing him, placing my car as close as possible. The distance separating us exceeded the length of the jumper cable. However, by interlocking the two sets of cables — his and mine — we were able to connect the two batteries.

I started my car. He tried to start his. To no avail. It wouldn’t start. There are other reasons besides a dead battery that a car won’t start. For instance, it could have been a bad starter. Its solenoid might have gone bad.

Regardless, we had exhausted easy possibilities. Time for a mechanic.

Sorry,” I said, unhooking the jumper cables. “Do you have roadside assistance?” He shook his head.

“Do you know anyone around here?” I persisted. “I have a friend who can help,” he offered. “I can walk there.” “Get in,” I said. “I’ll drive you.”

I could have been wary. Giving a stranger a ride can be risky. I suppose my car could have car-jacked. The other fellow might have robbed or otherwise harmed me. But it was broad daylight. He didn’t look like a robber. Besides, if there is Someone out there, times like this I assume I’ll be protected.

I don’t think that’s being presumptuous.

His friend lived probably close to a mile away. It was a good thing I was taking him there. On the way he told me his wife had died within the past year.

At last count, the majority (64%) of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t take much to push them over the precipice. Some are pushed by unexpected expenses: medical, or the trauma of tragedy (e.g. the death of a spouse). That might have been the case for him.

I wondered where he slept the prior night. “In my car,”he said. Like each of us, he had his unique story. Too bad I wouldn’t hear it that day. I was supposed to be back at work in less than an hour.

“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Yes,” he nodded. But there were no eateries where we were headed. It was a residential area. Upon reaching our destination — a random house — he asked for water. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any to give him. But I did have a couple protein bars, and gave him one.

“God bless you,” he said, upon exiting the car.

“Good luck,” I replied. And meant it.

For it occurs to me there is a thin line that separated him from me. It could easily be me with a car that wouldn’t start. Like Blanche duBois, a protagonist of Tennessee Williams’ 1951 play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I myself might have had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Or I could have been born in a place Russians are invading, hoping to pound its inhabitants, their purported brothers, into submission.There was a time when I may not have helped at all.

I’m learning

I might have considered myself too busy. Or reasoned that stopping to help strangers is risky. But all my excuses would have been flimsy.

The next day, having finished lunch, I rounded a corner and saw a young man in a baseball cap, sitting at a table outside a coffee shop.

I had seen him heading that way as I sat eating. His head was buried in his hands. I went up to him. “Are you all right?” I asked. “It’s just so hot,” he said. And so it was. We were having a hot spell.

I went to my car, thought a moment, then turned around and went back to him. I pulled out a bill from my wallet.“You don’t have to do this,” he protested, but mildly. I handed him the bill and said, “Why don’t you get yourself something cold to drink?”

I didn’t tell him, but I did have to do that. Version 2.0 of my OS told my version 1.0 it was necessary. As I was retreating, he called out: “God bless you.”

God bless me

Why do they say that? I surmise some of these people don’t even believe in a god.

Perhaps they do. But something is hardwired in us to make us believe that virtue comes from another place, one we may sense but dimly. We see it more with our mind’s eye than our actual one.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I can use all the blessings others want to send my way.

I went back to my car. When I turned around, the young man was nowhere to be seen. He had presumably gone to get a cold drink.

Maybe, just maybe, the reason we were put on Earth (if you happen to believe this way) is to help others who are in need. It’s not difficult to find them. They’re all around. All we need do is pay attention.

And that is why I write this. Not for self congratulatory reasons. But to remind us — all of us — of the verity of Aesop (he the Greek slave and fabulist, 620–560 BCE) who opined, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

I think it quite possible that, at the end of time as we know it, the world will contain two kinds of people: those with empathy and those without. If we lack natural empathy, we might consider asking for it. It is surely something most of us could use more of.

At one place I’ve found to eat there is a sign posted, reading:

“Make happy those who are near, and those who are far will come.”

At the figurative table where I sit, all — from both near and far — are welcome.

I think grandson would approve.

Sam Chen writes from Southern California.

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