I was on the train from Newcastle to Sydney a few weeks back. It was a Sunday afternoon and the train was packed. I was sitting in one of the designated quiet carriages where conversations must kept to a minimum, phones are to be put away, and if you listen to music you must do so through headphones.

At Gosford a woman of similar age to me boarded the train and set beside me. She was rather annoyed and flustered because on this particular Sunday afternoon the quiet carriage was anything but quiet. Shortly after the train resumed its journey she noticed my trembling right hand and asked what the condition was. When I replied that I had Parkinson’s she reached across and gave me a long and warm hug. Upon release she commented that her grandfather had died with Parkinson’s and she felt for me. It was a spontaneous, generous display of empathy.

Moments later I saw the opposite. A Chinese man was speaking rather loudly into his mobile phone for an extended period of time when my travelling companion turned to me and muttered “Bloody Chinese. They think they can come here and do anything they want!” I suggested that perhaps a more likely explanation was that the gentleman across the aisle was not a frequent user of the train and simply didn’t know it was a quiet carriage. My companion would have nothing of that.

What strange creatures we are, that we can engage in spontaneous, generous displays of empathy towards one human being and lack it altogether towards others. The nub of the problem it seems to me is who we view as belonging to “us”. When we see another person as like us we find it easy to empathise, but when we view them as other, as unlike us, empathy makes way for a hardness of spirit.

So I was doubly blessed by this stranger who got on the train at Gosford. I was touched by her generous display of empathy towards me, and I was reminded by her distinct lack of empathy for our Chinese traveller of my need to continually work hard at seeing every fellow human being as a member of “my group”.

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