In college, I volunteered with a homeless outreach program. “Just talk to the people on the streets,” the campus minister told us. “Have a conversation with them. Treat them like regular human beings.” In other words, be like the Good Samaritan whose first act was to come near and see. Social service organizations could meet the physical needs of the homeless, but it was our task to provide them with dignifying, caring, and sincere human interaction.

For two years, I built relationships with the regulars that hung out near campus, learning about their families, their Vietnam War service, their professions and hobbies. Most importantly, I learned that I, a young adult at a private university, was not so different from them. Some had once lived lives similar to mine before facing difficult and unexpected turns.

Truth be told, I’ve had trouble holding on to that lesson. As I’ve gotten older and more preoccupied with work and family, I tell myself I don’t have the time or the energy to pay attention to those in need in front of me. But perhaps more accurately, I haven’t had the heart. It’s much easier to go home and make an online donation to a charity serving the homeless than to look a homeless person in the eye and say hello.

Now an educated, married professional, I realize that the social divide between those in poverty and me has grown. It takes more effort to bridge the gap, and my empathy muscles don’t always feel up for the task. When I see a homeless person these days, like many of us, I often walk away and do nothing.

In recent years a significant body of social research has demonstrated that people become less empathetic—less kind, generous, ...

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