It is five degrees below zero. There are about three blocks between where I currently am and the warm, toasty interior of Sweetwaters where I’m headed. I sprint as fast as I can down State Street because, though the wind may be a whiplash, to sulk and shiver idly would be an even more aggravated, elongated torture.

In my tunnel-visioned hurry, I sweep past figure after hooded figure nested in the nook of each street corner. They are the same homeless people who are there every day, except today their hands are folded inward from the cold. I don’t realize that their involuntary immobility, the exact kind I try to avoid, must make the needle-sting of the chill hurt that much more.

When I finally arrive in the comfort of my destination — overpriced coffee in hand — I read an article that slapped me harder than the wind chill did. In 1973, John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson of Princeton University published “From Jerusalem to Jericho,” a piece in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In their study, they analyze the way our egocentric society alienates those out on the street. However, they explain how it’s our self-absorption and consequent lack of awareness that prompts us to not acknowledge the needy, even when they are by our feet. As they sum up, “Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”

As individuals, we have all become increasingly busy, cramming activities and meetings into our schedules until the white spaces on our calendars disappear. We are always hurrying everywhere; to events we will perpetually be late to — even on Michigan time. As we rush to our destinations, our heads are bent down — if not in cold, then immersed in the egocentric universe of our smartphones. Our Facebook statuses are always “on the go,” our tweets complain about how we’re always on the go and our GPS destinations are forever nomadic. In our self-centered worlds, we forget about everyone else around us, because we — me, myself, I — need to keep going, going, going…

I am from Boston, born and raised, and I harbor an East Coast mentality that puts me in an eternal state of self-centered hurry. At North Station, you will be trampled if you intend on slowing the sea of traffic. Growing up, my parents and teachers always taught me to avert my eyes forward, focus on my destination and ignore all beggars on the street because they most likely have adverse intentions with your money.

Now, I reflect on my first day at Michigan, my first stroll through downtown Ann Arbor with a Mitten-native friend. As we passed rows of homeless men and women lounging on the cement, I noticed that my friend nodded at each person who made eye contact, while I desperately avoided any connection. When explicitly asked for money — whether in a rough or gentle tone — he politely declined, apologized or simply said, “have a nice day.” Regardless, what astounded me was that he simply acknowledged their presence. He was able to reach the same “destination” as me, without a penny fewer from his pocket, but he validated the efforts and existence of these fellow human beings.

That day, I felt strange seeing my friend act with a kindness toward strangers who I didn’t quite understand, but I knew I was not the only one. As Darley and Batson underline, “A person (sees) another, consciously (notes) his distress, and consciously (chooses) to leave him in distress … The empathic reactions usually associated with that interpretation (have) been deferred because they (are) hurrying … Because of the time pressures, they (do) not perceive the scene as an occasion for an ethical decision.”

So, by perpetually being in a hurry, have we made ourselves less empathetic as basic humans? It is our hurry that makes us more selfish, less aware — and I guess, by default, less compassionate.

I am not overtly wealthy and I unfortunately do not have change or resources to give every homeless person I encounter. It will be difficult to loosen our schedules, slow our perpetual rush or eradicate our fascination with our mobile devices. Each person I meet on the street may also not have genuine intentions or altruistic means when asking for money.

However, at the core, we are all one and the same — trying to get somewhere with our lives. We are all human beings who deserve to be treated as such, regardless of whether we are squatting or standing on the pavement. A simple nod or “have a nice day” will not actually hinder me on my way to my destination, nor will it make the biting wind any softer. Regardless, I’m quite sure the cold is much harsher on their end of the sidewalk.

Karen Hua can be reached at

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