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If You Change These Things Today We Could Fix America Tomorrow

03/05/2014 10:13 am ET | Updated May 05, 2014

They were the first thing I noticed when I walked on the subway.

A woman and a man sharing a bench seat in the corner, bundled to the neck in ragged clothing. In the first minute or two I spent glancing at them I saw the male, probably in his twenties, shuffle through a backpack to find a bag of candy. His eyes were swollen, his hands were shriveled and blistered, his teeth were visibly rotted and his body was shaking.

The woman, who I gathered was his mother when the man pleaded with her to "just sleep, mom," looked equally as downtrodden. She whined and winced as she tried to get comfortable with her feet on the beat up suitcase and old shopping cart that presumably held everything they owned.

At my best guess, the two were meth addicts. Their teeth and swollen eyes made me believe that. I'm certain they were addicted to drugs, if not from their worn physical appearance I could see it in the boy's hands, the way they shook uncontrollably as he tried to read a two week old newspaper with glassy, red eyes.

But what struck me about these people was what I and my fellow New Yorkers did in their presence. We gaped. We looked away when they looked up. We shook our heads and stared at our feet. We took out our books or looked at our phones or, like one twenty-something sitting next to me, we snuck in a quick Snapchat photo.

I found myself perplexed: how could these two people, so clearly in need of help, be so hopelessly alone in one of the most densely populated major cities in America?

This thought struck a harsh chord with me. And then it got me thinking about the things we could fix.

We need our standards of education to include classes on well-being.

What do you do when you encounter a stranger, one that doesn't look or talk or act like you, one that may be sick or intoxicated or even dangerous, but also one that needs your help? The mother and son I saw on the subway looked like they may not last the night, yet all I could think to do was get them a blanket. And I didn't even do that. I can tell you how to code a picture into this article, I could recite AP Style rules regarding commas or give you a bio on who wrote the book A Chorus of Stones, yet I couldn't help a fellow human being who needed me.

It needs to become more acceptable to say "I don't know."

In the same vein this article is written, we as a people need to come to terms with our own ignorance. Each and every time we speak to things we don't know or lie to ourselves and convince others of our knowledge, we do a massive disservice to all of mankind. As a result, we have politicians who would never dream of saying, "I don't know how to fix the economy, but I'll put the best people on it." Instead, they -- like most of us -- are cornered in a world that demands an answer when sometimes there isn't one.

The world needs more empathy tomorrow.

Empathy is having the capacity to share and understand the feelings of another person. Could you imagine how different our worlds would be if the left would empathize with the right, or vice versa? What if the rich empathized with the poor, or the poor with the rich? Perhaps if I could have felt empathy -- and not just sympathy -- for the two people I saw on the subway, then I truly would have been able to help.

Learn to leave your comfort zone, and do it often.

There are over three hundred languages spoken in America. 21 percent of our country, more than 60 million people, speak a language other than English at home. We have a vast range of socio economic demographics and the most diverse soil in the world. But how often do you sit down at dinner with people whose first language isn't English? Of all the places in the world, we live in one of the few that offers the opportunity to explore cultures, languages and religious rituals from faraway lands -- all without ever having to leave the city you live in. It's time we took advantage of it.

Remain positive.

I know this article points out the flaws of America, but I don't mean to join the "American bashing club." Simply put, I don't believe we are headed in the direction that will maintain our status as "the greatest nation on earth." Shoot, there are plenty of people who already know we aren't. Being constructive and honest with ourselves is the second most important thing for continued growth and improvement. Being positive, believing we can, and believing in each other is first.