ON a cold Friday night in mid-October, hundreds of middle-class residents of Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., gave up the comforts of home for an unusual social experiment. As participants in the second annual Great Plains Winter Sleep-out, they braved temperatures that dipped as low as 26 degrees to experience firsthand the plight of homeless people.
If they wanted to eat, they waited in line at a makeshift soup kitchen. When it was time to sleep, they converted sidewalks and benches into beds. Blankets and plastic garbage bags doubled as mattresses, and cardboard boxes became their only flimsy protection against the wind.
Their deprivation served a useful purpose: collecting money for area shelters. Last year's sleep-out raised $45,000 in donations. At a time when the homeless have all but disappeared from headlines, the event also offered reassuring evidence that at least one state hasn't forgotten the urgent needs of those who have no place to call their own.
As participants readily acknowledged, their single night on the streets could hardly simulate true homelessness. They were warmly dressed. They also knew they would soon return to a world filled with taken-for-granted comforts - soft beds, hot baths, full refrigerators. Yet even if some members of the group regarded the experience as little more than grist for dinner-party conversations, others undoubtedly gained new insight into lives that are worlds apart from their own.
The adult game of "Let's pretend" took another form last winter near Boston. Just before a state-of-the-art jail opened, the sheriff issued an unusual invitation. For $25, curious suburbanites could spend a night behind bars as part of a "Jail & Bail" charity fund-raiser. Although the event was more social than sociological, seriousness prevailed as mock prisoners fell asleep on their stainless-steel beds thinking, "This is what it's like to be in jail...."
Still, even empathy has its limits. At a time when the gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots continues to widen, the question on many voters' lips in this election year is: How can rich people isolated behind the palisades of power know what it's like to be poor, hungry, or unemployed?
As if to reassure voters that he understands, Bill Clinton frequently reminds audiences of his humble roots. Even billionaire Ross Perot recalls his days as a paperboy and his mother's entreaties about being kind to the Depression-era hobos who knocked at their door. "These are people just like us," Mr. Perot remembers his mother saying. "The only difference is they're down on their luck."
How much experience does it take to be able to identify with those who are "just like us" except for the circumstances of birth or opportunity? The record-holder may be Jack Coleman, former president of Haverford College, who used sabbaticals to dig ditches, wash dishes, collect garbage, and sweep streets. As he once told a Monitor reporter, his efforts to "walk in other people's shoes" helped him see "the dignity of all human beings."
Even experience doesn't always translate into understanding, of course. How many tourists have returned from cities like Paris or London having "seen" the richness and diversity of the local people and culture only through the window of a tour bus?
Nor does a lack of experience prevent others from perceiving universal truths with astonishing clarity. Stephen Crane never witnessed a battle until after he published "The Red Badge of Courage," yet it remains one of the best war novels ever written.
The most tireless adventurer can sample only a fraction of all the alternative experiences available. The final connection to other people's lives has to depend upon a leap of the imagination, followed by a leap of the heart. But the attempt to discover, firsthand, how the other half lives - whichever half that might be - is an act of respect, acknowledging the equal dignity and value of every life.
The phrase "out of touch" used to be the pejorative term for those who were not "hip," not "with it." It is an encouraging sign that it has come to apply to something more serious. The men and women now trying to walk in another's moccasins understand that being "in touch" with the needs of others is being "in touch" with the best part of one's self.