Finding Empathy

Last night, I experienced a disturbing situation on Toronto transit as I was coming home from eating at my favourite restaurant.

I boarded the subway around 9:30 so the car I was on was still very busy with passengers. I took my seat beside a sleeping man. I had maybe 10 stops before I’d get off at Union station.

Like most people, I keep to myself on public transit. I take out my reading material and ignore my fellow passengers as best as I can. In a sense, our world has obscured the reality around us, blocking out the lives of others, causing us at times to be selfish but not necessarily to anyone’s detriment.

About three stops into my journey, I took notice of the sleeping man who was an arm’s length away from me. Or, at least, I thought he was sleeping. His neck was craned at an awkward angle so his head was pushed foreward, his chin on his chest. I thought I detected his body shuddering gently, in rhythm with his breathing. He was young and appeared strong which probably should have suggested that he was okay; only in a deep sleep.


Yet, I could no longer concentrate any more on my reading. What if, in fact, he wasn’t okay? I asked myself. I looked around at the other passengers and they were all caught up in their own lives. No one seemed bothered by the slumped-over man nor did they seem bothered by my intensity in watching him.

I can pass homeless people on the street without much conscience, as they lay sprawled out on a sidewalk, motionless. Once I pass them, they are out of sight, out of mind.

But this man disturbed me. I felt I couldn’t get up and move to another seat, distancing myself from a potential problem.

When station names were called out, he didn’t stir. This struck me as odd. When I or others have fallen asleep on public transit, we usually wake up to the sound of our stop being announced and then get up in a slight stupor.

As we were approaching Union, I touched the man’s arm a few times and said “Sir!” in an audible voice a few times. I really did not want to involve myself with a stranger, especially when my own world was snug and secure. In case he suddenly jarred awake, I started formulating sentences in my head as to what I’d say to him.

Perhaps I’d grin idiotically if he squinted at me with annoyed eyes and say, “Sorry. I didn’t want you to miss your stop.”

But he didn’t wake up. He didn’t even show a subtle response to my actions.

As I got off the train, I looked back as a multitude of people boarded, and he was still slumped in the same position. I reported him to a TTC employee and he promised me he’d look into it.

I was still troubled but I felt good about my decision to report the situation.

Which leaves me with an even more overwhelming concern.

As I get older and think of death more, I always come up with the same view: I can accept death, I just can’t accept dying alone.

What if I died on a crowded subway car…and people still didn’t notice?


About randycoates

Randy Coates graduated from the University of Waterloo with a bachelor of arts degree and went on to acquire his teacher’s certificate at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently an elementary teacher in the Toronto District Board of Education.
This entry was posted in Getting Older, Love and Commitment and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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