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by Abigail Van Buren

Overwhelming Empathy Stymies Student's Desire to Help Others

DEAR ABBY: I am a 21-year-old man in college. I am training for a profession I will love, and I know my future will be very bright.

I would like to volunteer at a soup kitchen or do something for the poor. I have done turkey drives and food drives before, but never worked directly with the people I'm trying to help. My problem is I tend to become very sad or feel helpless when I'm around disadvantaged people. I identify too strongly with their suffering.

Abby, I want to help as many people as I can during my short time on this planet, but I'm paralyzed by their pain. Is something wrong with me? Have you any suggestions? -- WANTS TO HELP IN EDEN, N.Y.

DEAR WANTS TO HELP: My grandfather used to say that a thin line separates those who have from those who don't, and it is the responsibility of those who have to reach out and do something to help the less fortunate. In your case, donating your time would be enormously helpful, and frankly, seeing you personally offering your assistance would go a long way to lifting the spirits of some needy people.

Because you are nervous about it, consider transitioning to the "front lines" by starting with food prep in the kitchen of the shelter and working your way forward as you gain more confidence. Yes, the clients are people in trouble. But they depend on the kindness of people like you.