The death of empathy


Four days ago I wrote this column for Sports Illustrated’s website. It’s the saga of Sal Fasano, veteran baseball journeyman who, at age 38, is very concerned about paying for his 2-year-old son’s heart surgery. I’ve known Sal for a long time, and consider him to be a very worthy, noble man.

Yet in the aftermath of the piece, I was shocked by some of the letters I received. In summation: Why should I feel bad for Sal Fasano? He made $300,000 last year to play baseball. Do you know how many people would kill for that? Yabba Dabba Doo …

Though I understand the sentiment, I am nonetheless saddened by it. Universally, from coast to coast and across all spectrums political, religious and economic, we Americans possess strikingly little empathy. The Fasano case reminded me of an instance several years ago, when I gave my peanut butter sandwich to a homeless man begging for food in New York City. A person I know said, “Why’d you do that? The guy should get a job.” I was horrified. Maybe the guy should have gotten a job. Maybe he was a scam artist. A fraud. But, come day’s end, he was still a human being standing on a corner, asking for something to eat. That alone merits sympathy—just as Sal, money be damned, is a person scared to death about his son’s plight.

Yet this is who we are; what we stand for. When it comes to health care (whether you agree with the current plans or not), there seems to be little-to-no empathy for the millions of Americans who can’t afford a plan. When it comes to taxes, we all whine and complain and moan (myself included), forgetting that, somewhere out there, an AIDS clinic … a homeless shelter … a battered women’s support group—depends on federal and state funds. We walk past the homeless man and don’t flinch. We see a foreclosed house and instantly think (excitedly), “Great! Now I can buy that!” We hear of fatalities overseas and comfort ourselves by saying, “Well, at least they weren’t Americans.” We are heartless, and it truly sucks.

Why, just two evenings ago, while sitting in synagogue listening to Yom Kippur service, an old man got sick and needed help. While some people made their way to his side, and others called 9-1-1, the rabbi and cantor just kept rolling along, trying to distract the attendees from the ugly situation at hand.

That sums it up: Turn your eyes. Look elsewhere.

Ignore the bleeding.

8 thoughts on “The death of empathy”

  1. Well said Pearlman. When so many people use the TV as a babysitter instead of actually connecting with their kids its not wonder we’re all so cold hearted.

  2. maybe what people meant was they have LESS empathy for someone that makes 300k as opposed to someone who is lets say, a plumber making 30k a year who has a daughter suffering from a medical condition.

    lets face it, someone that is rich is going to have less of a burden because of the lesser amount of stress that comes from being able to afford teh treatment.

    people dont realize that the financial stress and burden that comes with someone becoming sick compounds the illness exponentially.

    i can understand the sentiment that you make, but i also think that its perfectly understandable for people to react to fasano’s situation that way. im not saying i agree with the people that may have said something along the lines of “Why should i feel bad for fasano,” but more like “i have MORE empathy for the person that has less.”


    on that note, i was stuck in traffic on the gwb once with a chick and there was a homeless guy with a dog and my friend goes “aww, look at that dog, i feel so bad for it!” completely ignoring the homeless PERSON.

    so yes, i agree that in general, there is less empathy going around, but i think the sal fasano example is a poor one.

  3. I thought the piece was touching. I’m confused about why his earnings mean he’s somehow less deserving of empathy.

    An ill child should be one of those situations that brings compassion from even the worst of us. I guess not.

  4. I read the SI article and did feel sorry for Fasano’s situation…BUT, I really couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t pay the 20K to GUARANTEE that his son’s coverage be continued. I’m sorry, but even when I first read that sentence it sounded like a ridiculously stupid move. He made it sound like he couldn’t afford it all, but I don’t think many people would buy that (pardon the pun), myself included.

  5. Two things:

    1. Empathy works both ways, Jeff. Not saying that Fassano is a jerk or anything (I don’t know the man) but how many athletes have any empathy towards the millions of people who faun over them on a nightly basis? Most of the times when an athlete comes in contact with the public he is flicked away like a flea.

    I’m not naive enough to believe that all athletes are a*sholes or that there aren’t some bad fans out there, but its hard for some to sympathize with a group of people that doesn’t sympathize with them.

    2. How’s your arm feel? Must hurt from the pat on the back that you gave yourself.

    There are better ways to make a point than using yourself as a beacon of “the right way” to do things. It comes of as arrogant.

  6. Irregardless of Fassano’s situation, Jeff, we’ve become essentially a very selfish nation. You can hear it every time you hear people bitch about “illegals” as if using that very phrase makes them less human. If someone says “You’ll get paid $10 less a day, but it will mean your neighbor won’t have to starve” you’d probably agree to that deal. Because you know your neighbor and, in general, you have compassion for him. But if someone said “Ok, you’ll get paid $10 less per day, and it will go to a homeless person you’ve never met” a majority of us say “To hell with that. I worked hard for this money. He’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol. I’m sure I’ll get around to giving money to a shelter at some point.” We dehumanize the theoretical “other” and circle the wagons to protect our own. I understand that desire to some extent, and I don’t think even the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals would deny that government can’t solve every problem. But a lot of it is that a lot of us no longer want to sacrifice anything for the greater good. We see no greater good. We instead wonder, “How do I get and protect mine?” Everyone who isn’t as well off as us doesn’t work as hard, we think. They’re just scamming the system. If they wanted a peanut butter sandwich, they’d have one. It’s a little depressing to think about.

  7. Jeff, prior to my situation I felt like you do…and in some ways I still believe people are rude and nasty and selfish.

    But, so many positive things have happened for me and my family that my faith in humanity has been restored.

    Some people still suck, and that will never change, but I think there really is a lot of good in the world.

    I have maintained a blog to keep my family and friends up to date on my treatment. I’m going to copy and paste the most recent act of generosity I encountered:

    “I continue to be humbled by the generosity and kindness of my family, friends and even complete strangers.

    Moments before my splenectomy, I laid on the hospital bed making a final pitch to my wife to get me to the XXXXX State game on Saturday, just two days after surgery.

    Many people visited the room to prepare me for the surgery. I tried to enlist their support to win my case; it didn’t work.

    Instead, we had a discussion with one person–who wishes to remain anonymous–about watching the game on TV. We talked about a 50-inch plasma being the way to go.

    Our TV is quite a bit smaller.

    Obviously, I didn’t make it to the XXXXX game. But, here I am a week later preparing for another great day of college football and some visitors arrive at the house.

    It’s my brother and brother-in-law. They have with them a 50-inch plasma Samsung television.

    I couldn’t believe it. This man, whom I met and talked with only briefly, gave my family a 50-inch television (with a 5-year extended warranty!).

    Bad things happen to good people. That’s the way I used to look at my situation. But, so many good things have happened since, it’s hard for me to feel bad about where I’m at.

    So many people have responded and have helped me and my family to overcome this obstacle.

    Anonymous TV donor…thank you. I’m not going to call you today because I think I’d cry like a baby. But, you’ll be hearing from me soon.

    And to the rest of you that continue to support me…thank you too. It means the world to me.”

    The connection to this man was my brother’s sister-in-law, who worked at the hospital. She told this man about my blog. He began to read it, and apparently was touched by one of my earlier entries discussing how important it is that we all help each other–the same way so many people have risen up to help me and my family.

    He said when he read that passage he decided to give me the TV. He purchased that TV ($1,000 + $500 for the extended warranty) the weekend before on a whim.

    There are good people…lots of them. We just have to sort through a lot of shit sometimes to find them.

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