I remember that day in Florence (Firenze), I was standing there on the sidewalk next to a gelateria, all alone. I was traveling all alone to begin with, and that day I wasn't spending with newfound Florentine friends, either. There was an old lady in a wheelchair out on the street, surrounded by about a dozen suitcases, out in the heat, all alone, and she started calling out to me! Immediately, I assessed the situation— she was old, in a wheelchair, and left with a dozen suitcases in the middle of the street, it was terribly hot— the whole scenario was very unlikely; and yet, there it was, before my eyes! And she was calling out to me! I walked out to her and she spoke to me in Italian, holding out some money in her hand, asking me to buy her some gelato from the gelateria at the corner where I was standing at before she called me out onto the street.
I know that I am a compassionate person. And I know that I am highly empathic and sensitive. But I am also analytical and I am not stupid and I am not easily played. Though I saw that the old lady was in a wheelchair and it was very hot and she needed some gelato, I could not bring myself to take the money from her hand and go and do as she was asking me to! The scenario was too unlikely. First of all, nobody in their right mind, in Italy, leaves their great grandmother stranded on a hot day, in the street, surrounded by a dozen suitcases! Secondly, why wasn't she asking that I buy her water? Why ask for gelato? In a scenario like that, you don't ask for ice cream, but you ask for water! It was very, very hot! I could put together the rest of the probable puzzle from there— she, having been able to gauge my levels of sympathy/compassion, would then make a bigger request— that I assist her in bringing her luggage somewhere (God knows where)! And then from there I could make out that she was probably not really alone, at all. I mean, why would she be alone? How did all that luggage get there, in the first place? Did she tag them along behind her in her wheelchair? Of course not! And, you know, Florence is full of Mafia, who knows if the whole thing was a set up and who knows what was in those many, many suitcases! I could have easily been framed for pushing drugs, locked up in Florence, and detained until a court hearing! A never-ending nightmare!
I could have helped the old lady and gained favour in the eyes of all the onlookers (there were plenty), risking my own safety and going against my better judgment; or, I could call the bunch of other travelers over there, who were traveling in a group, and ask if they could assist her, because a group of travelers would be a more unlikely target for any shadowy plans like the ones I had analysed to be possible. So, I did the latter. I walked up to the group of travelers a meter away, and I asked them if they would not help her. I explained what she wanted, and explained why I felt I shouldn't do it. They agreed that if they were in my position, they would have done the same as me, and then they proceeded to helping her. That way, if she was legitimately looking for help in the form of a simple cup of gelato, then she would get her needed help, and it didn't matter to me if I looked like a bad person or not. She would have gotten her help, that's what was important! And, if the actual scenario was as how I had analysed it to possibly be, then I had just saved myself from ruining my future!
The moral of this very true story, that occurred in Summer of 2010, is that empathy is compassion with intelligence, and that our compassion should never become a tool by which we may be used by others as a means to their own ends that may be harmful to us. We should not sacrifice our intelligence for appearances. If you indeed want to help, there is another way to help that might not make you look like a good person, but the outcome for the one in need would be exactly the same! And that's how true empathy is measured, I believe. If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same exact thing! And I teach my son the same, as well. I hope you've enjoyed my short lecture for today, may joy be with you! Run along now, run along! :)