Maybe you’ve seen the ad. A four-year old boy walks into a crowded train station with his mother. She lets go of his hand and walks away. Separated from his mother, standing alone and frightened as the crowd of passengers swarms around him, looking frantically around for his mother, the boy quickly dissolves from lost confusion into hysterical tears.
A voice-over breaks in. “This is how your child feels after losing you for a minute. Just imagine if they lost you for life.”
It’s an anti-smoking commercial, part of a graphic series of ads the NY Department of Health is running in New York City. The ad has caused a bit of a stir because this gut-wrenching scene wasn’t just acting. The little boy really did lose sight of his mother during the making of the ad. And it was done on purpose.
But I’m not here to talk about manipulative advertising, child abuse, or "crying porn." I have my own opinion, as, no doubt, do you. Instead, I wanted to talk about my reaction the first time I saw this ad.
Yes, it’s all about me again. Sorry.
The first time I saw that little boy, all alone and crying, I broke down in tears. No chance to think about it first. No chance to stop it. The tears just came, instantly.
A friend of mine who was also watching looked over at me like I was having a nervous breakdown. As he later told me, he thought the ad may have been a little sad, but he felt nothing like the emotions that were pouring unbidden out of me at that moment.
The difference? He had no kids. I have a 3-year old son, with beautiful blond hair and the most adorable smile you have ever seen. I love my son with all of my heart. And when I have seen tears on my son’s cheeks like those in the commercial -- and see them I have -- every instinct in my body cries out to help him, to make those tears go away. It’s more than a want or a need. It’s an imperative. And before I had a child of my own, I had no clue how compelling and primal that imperative was.
Had I seen this commercial before I had a child of my own, I might have felt much like my friend. Saddened maybe, but not touched personally. And it wasn’t until I had experienced a similar event, with my own son, that I gained the compassion and understanding to connect on a personal level.
They tell me that I can’t really know someone else until I’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Or as my Healing Place friends might say, “How you know where I’m at, you ain’t been where I been?”
This I believe. Some among us have the gift of compassion. Such people are better able than most to put themselves in the place of the less fortunate, to “feel their pain,” as Bill Clinton famously said. The rest of us must rely on our life experiences to build love and compassion for others.
Because of my season as a homeless alcoholic, I am better able to understand and care for the homeless around me. Without that experience, I doubt I’d be Associate Director of CARITAS Works, a non-profit in Richmond caring for the homeless and those at-risk.
Because of my season as an oppressed minority, specifically a gay man, I am better able to understand and care for those around me who have experienced discrimination and oppression. Without that experience, I doubt I’d have made all the friends I have over the past two years at The Healing Place, and I certainly wouldn’t have been as good a friend in return.
My senior partner at Hogan & Hartson, a guy named Bob, once told me that to be a good trial lawyer, you have to do everything in your life you can without being convicted. That’s the only way you can look your jurors in the eye with understanding as you tell your story.
Bob, I’m working on it.