The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be

01/16/2018 09:45 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2018
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Aftershocks continue to reverberate in the wake of President Trump’s vulgar and disparaging comments last Thursday about Haitian and African immigrants and their countries of origin. His striking lack of compassion remains startling, but no words can describe the added cruelty of maligning Haiti at a time when memories of unfathomable loss have resurfaced.

Eight years ago, on a Wednesday night in January - the first night of a new business writing class at Northeastern University - I began the standard getting-to-know-you banter with my students. A young man in the back row quietly introduced himself. "My name is Henry," he said. "I'm from Haiti." An uneasy silence descended on the room. Twenty-four hours earlier, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake had devastated this man’s Caribbean nation. After sending my two young children off to school, I’d spent most of the day in front of the TV, watching as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose crew brought us the first images of the catastrophic quake’s aftermath, wandered street after street of collapsed buildings, filming the desperate efforts by ordinary men and women to rescue their loved ones trapped beneath the rubble.

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I looked into Henry’s eyes and found my voice. “Is your family okay?” I asked.

“I haven’t been able to get in touch with them - yet,” he answered, and I felt the weight of his hope land on that final word.

My evening plan to discuss the value of good writing in the workplace seemed so unimportant in the face of this personal crisis. I wanted to stop class there. Cancel it for the night, send everybody home, and let Henry go do what he had to do. But Henry was here in this classroom, his notebook open on his desk, ready to learn. Stoic. Poised. His demeanor spoke to a kind of resilience that I’d rarely encountered. One that says, “Today, this is what I have to do.” A resilience I needed to honor.

“Our thoughts are with you all,” I said, despite how hollow the words sounded, and the rest of the students murmured similar sentiments. We finished introductions, and I passed out the course syllabus. “Let’s get started.”

Later that night, I sent Henry an email offering to extend any upcoming deadlines so that he didn’t have to worry about falling behind and urging him to take the time he needed. His response, sent the next day, brought the reality of the news reports so much closer:

Some of my family is okay, but they are still searching for one of my sisters. She is buried under the debris, but my other sister told me that they heard her voice and are trying to free her.

Over the next three days, Henry sent me sporadic updates.

They are still digging, but there’s no sound coming out.

They haven’t found her yet. Last night they found her purse.

They are still digging. Now, I am preparing for any news.

And five days after our first night of class, this:

They found my sister’s body.

The cold finality of Henry’s message swept through me. I’d watched the ongoing footage of people being pulled alive from beneath the ruins of homes and businesses and schools, and I’d allowed myself to feel a spark of hope for Henry’s sister, too. Now, all that remained was my imagined scene of his grieving family. How their exhausted muscles ached beneath the layers of sweat and grime. How their vacant eyes sank deep into their faces. How their hands, torn and bleeding, nails jagged and lined with dirt, cradled his sister’s broken body.

As we commemorate the recent anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, I am still haunted by that unbearable image. By all of the unbearable images of similar losses we witnessed in the days and weeks afterward. More haunting, though, is one man’s inability to comprehend that when he separates himself from others’ stories, refuses to lean in and acknowledge their pain, and fails to mourn when they mourn, he is turning his back on the very thing that could make him human.

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