The Empathy Game
(The Empathy Game is a fragment of an unfinished, longer story, but I think it stands alone as an interesting piece.)
Ray Owens sat alone in the back of the bus, watching a parade of human squalor pass by the windows. Nearly naked children rapped their knuckles on the side of the bus holding up their hands desperately for a handout. He remained silent, but a thin man with wild curly hair two rows ahead of him tossed them a candy bar out the window. The thin man looked distraught when they fought over it. To appease the other kids the man tossed three US dollars out, which only created a small riot. The number of ragged children under the window began to grow exponentially. "Si vo ple? Si vo ple, Dollar Mesur?" cried a tiny girl in a ragged dress that had once been blue.
An old woman sitting on an empty crate was laughing at the bus full of stupid white people making a scene with street kids. Ray watched it all in silence, memorizing the way that the desperate faces shone in the sun. He had been looking for something as raw and alive as this. Everyone here is face to face with death, Ray thought, It makes them more alive.
The thin man appeared relived when the bus moved again. The next stop was a UN office. It was a grey office building surrounded by a wall and barbed wire.
The gate opened and a muscular man with beard and a briefcase came out of the gate and got in the bus. He walked to the back and sat by the lanky man with the wild hair. The thin man eagerly extended his hand, which was visible smudged with grime from the grasping children. "Hi, I'm Chuck Drier. This is my first tour with the Peace Corp."
“Well, hello Chuck, I’m Mark Chapel. Welcome to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the capital of Hell. Are you ready to be a caring American? Are you ready to care till it hurts?” He only casually nodded to Chuck as he spoke. Although his voice was loud and booming, he seemed preoccupied with the papers in his notebook.
The wild-haired man smiled and looked confused. He couldn’t quite tell if this were a real question or some sort of joke. “Excuse me?”
Chapel closed the notebook. “Oh, they just don’t explain this stuff very well in orientation. You are a Peace Corps volunteer in the Third World, so it’s time you started scoring those compassion points you came for! You see you may have been able to beat your friends back home, but now you’re playing in the big leagues. Don’t try to look so confused; you know what I’m talking about. The empathy game: a contest to see who gets to say, ‘I care more than you.’ If you want my advice, you should quit now. I’m way ahead of you. I’ve seen more poor people die than I can remember. I saw three men shot in the street last week.” Chapel paused a moment. Chuck looked on with wide eyes. Several people in the other seats had started to listen. The man seemed pleased and continued, “And I tell you, I could do it perfectly. I could shed tears when I told my stories. People would stop and listen to me. Then I realized I don’t give a damn about any of these people. I just want to be here so I could be proud of scoring those compassion points. I came down here because I wanted a front row seat for their suffering, same as all of you. I wanted to see them die so I could tell myself how good I was for trying to help them. I was the one who was there to hold their hands when they died. Sometimes they were so sick and disabled that their families had abandoned them, but I was there… I was there to the very end.”
The wild-haired fellow was squirming uncomfortably, but the man beside him was in a mood to lecture. “I would visit the states and everyone wanted to hear about my work in Haiti. They would say ‘Peace Corps in Haiti! My God, what sacrifice! How hard it must be!’ ...Hell no! I’ve never been happier. I never slept better than after I watched the first man die. Of course, I stay up for a while and feel sorry for them, because that is what compassionate humanitarians do. And then I sleep like a baby, peaceful and proud of my goodness. You’ll probably have it the same way when you go down to Cite Solel the first time. Nothing feels better that helping the suffering. That’s what the Peace Corps is all about.”
The coordinator, Elisabeth, sitting in the front looked indignant. She turned around and spoke loudly over the noise of the bus. Her voice had a harsh edge. “So Mark, you think we’re all here for self-gratification because that’s why you came? Is that what you’re telling us?”
“I don’t judge anyone. Maybe all of you are nothing but hearts full of love and unselfishness. But I suspect I wasn’t the only one who got my jollies out of community assistance in Cite Soleil. That’s why I stopped requesting community assistance. All that caring was just too degrading. I stick around the offices now. There’s plenty of work for me to there. And I know what all these new volunteers are thinking: ‘Seeing all that misery finally got to him and made him hard.’ No, it just made me bored. There are only so many times a dying child can be interesting.”
Everyone looked to Elisabeth for an answer. “So now you don’t go to Cite Soleil clinics,” she responded, “What good does that do? The AIDS patient whose hand you would have held dies alone instead. It doesn’t matter what your reasons were. You were there. You gave someone comfort when he needed it. Do you want us to make ourselves miserable because we feel good about ourselves for helping other people? Serving other should make you feel good about yourself. Why tear yourself up with guilt because you are proud of what you did? You should be proud of yourself. The dying man whose hand you held would have wanted you to be proud. Why be obsessed with guilt that you gain something from helping people? Human relationships should always be a give and take, and we always gain more from the poor than we can ever do for them. I work in Hopital d’Pe, so should I hate myself because the old women thank me and kiss my hands? No, I’m not too proud to accept the gifts of the poor.”
The bottom of the bus scraped as it pulled through the gate. By now everyone was in the bus was listening. Hotel d’Pe was a square concrete building covered with peeling yellow paint. There was an American flag painted in the side with some slogan in French written underneath.
Mark rose, “Well this is where we get off.” He smiled darkly as he retrieved his briefcase from the rack. “Don’t let me get you down. Remember you’re Americans. You’re saving the world!” He grinned and tucked his briefcase under his arm and walked out of the bus. He had a spring in his step that made Ray grit his teeth in anger. Everyone sat silent as they watched him walk into the building—relieved that the arrogant bastard was gone.
Chuck Drier spoke as he reached for his bag, “I’ll tell you what I think. I think that helping people just wasn’t doing enough for him. He can swell his ego even more by convincing himself he’s smarter than everyone else. He thinks he can see right through everyone. Well fuck him! He doesn’t know me.”
Everyone filed off the bus. “I really must apologize,” Elisabeth said as she led them to their rooms. “Mark’s been frustrated lately. He really is a good guy. Everyone has some burnout eventually. Just remember what you are here for and try not to let things get to you. Here you are,” she said and opened one of the doors. It was a little concrete room with two beds, a chair, and a table with a lamp. “Two of you to a room. Be grateful. Electrical light and running water is more than most people in this city can ever hope for. Showering is fine but try to conserve water, and don’t drink or brush with the water from the sink. There is good water at the end of the hall.”
Ray unloaded his bag. There were an odd number of rooms so he had the room to himself. The window was open but it was still stifling hot in the room. The others were around the water cooler talking, but Ray headed for the shade under the palm trees in the dusty courtyard. He sat on the ground with his back against the high wall that surrounded the compound. His wet shirt clung to his back. There was some sort of balcony on the second level just above him. He saw Mark Chapel come out, sink into a chair, and light a cigarette. Chapel didn’t seem to notice Ray lounging in the shade below.
Elisabeth Lane appeared behind Mark’s chair. “Mark, what the hell was that for? I know you’re frustrated fine, but that’s the second pep talk for pessimism you’ve given my people. Half of them are going to quit anyway. You telling them they have selfish motives won’t help.”
Mark took a long drag before responding. “We are encouraged to share our feelings with each other. Anyway I figure I can do some recruiting for the office for when your idealists get sick of the smell of those slums. None of the kids fresh off the plane want to work in the office.”
Elisabeth’s voice was calm and kind, “Mark, have you thought about heading home, at least for a while? You’re a smart man. You could be making much better money in the states than a desk job in Port-au-Prince that you hate. Why are you still here?”
“I am serving my country by serving the people of Haiti.”
“That’s bullshit, Mark.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Mark sneered.
Elisabeth sat beside him and softened her expression, “Then why do you stay and make all the rest of us depressed? You know what I think? I think you’re just beating yourself up out of habit. You don’t give yourself enough credit, Mark. I think you still care a lot, and you just hate to admit it. Your are afraid to care because it hurts to care when you can’t stop their suffering.”
He ground out his cigarette on the ledge, “Has it occurred to you that I might be here just because I don’t want to go back to the US? I’m sick of the states. Haiti is boring but it isn’t as dull as the US. At least there’s political instability here to keep things interesting.” He rose and leaned against the ledge, “You know, Elisabeth, you should thank me for talking to them. They’ll be your hardest-working longest-lasting team yet. They’re all furious that their precious altruism was questioned. They’ll do anything now to prove they’re not like me. That whole group could come down with malaria tomorrow and they’d still refuse to get flown to Miami. They’ll all become Mother Teresas just out of spite for me.” He turned and looked right down at Ray, “Isn’t that right sir?”
Ray didn’t flinch. “I will stay the whole nine months for which I signed,” he responded.
Chapel laughed and lifted his water bottle as if he were giving a toast. “You are a good man, my friend… good grammar too. You’re the artist aren’t you? Good for you! A man with artistic sensitivity who is also tough and honest—you belong in a romance novel. So, do you think the Haitian people need artists?”
“Haitians have a rich art tradition. I’m just going to lend a hand.”
“They make some very colorful things. I think you’ll do well, art teacher. If you need anything while you’re here in Port give me a call.” He turned to Elisabeth, “You know, he may actually be compassionate. Maybe he and his art will save this shithole country.”
Chapell picked up his briefcase and turned to go.
Ray bristled with anger. There he sits up on his balcony trying to pass judgment on me like some beneficent monarch! Who the hell does he think he is? He stood up, “That isn’t why I came. I'm not going to save anyone.”
“What’s that?” Chapell turned back as if he had completely forgotten Ray was below the balcony.
Elisabeth had had enough of the self-gratifying display as well. “You heard him, Mark! He said you’re full of shit!” She spun around and walked back through the sliding doors slamming them behind her. Chapell looked down as if seeking some support or commiseration, but Ray had also turned and was walking into the dormitory. Mark Chapell sighed and sank back into his chair, lighting another cigarette.
"Fuck these humanitarians!" he mumbled under his breath, "No sense of humor."