The ability to feel someone else’s pain is generally held to be a good thing. In fact, the ability to “empathize” has long been considered a yardstick by which we measure not only our friends but also our political leaders. It is said that Al Gore lost because he was too stiff, while Bill Clinton was famous for his line: “I feel your pain.” More recently, the “empathy gap” was blamed for Mitt Romney’s defeat at the hands of Barack Obama.
However, there are dissenters. Yale psychology professor Dr. Paul Bloom, in his recent lecture entitled, “Does Empathy Make Us Immoral?” argues that empathy is vastly overrated and often can lead us to help the wrong people, as it is by its very nature “biased and parochial.” He is quick to warn us of how an over-reliance on empathy can lead to disastrous social policy: “On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution.” Perhaps Dr. Bloom’s point-of-view is catching on, since in 2016 Donald Trump’s lack of any discernible trace of empathy when referring to immigrants and others has not at all deterred his march to the White House.
When it comes to our private lives, I heartily disagree with Dr. Bloom in that we universally recognize the ability to appreciate someone else’s dilemmas as a precondition for a solid friendship. A line that readily comes to mind is that famous retort in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For me, one such solid friendship based on empathy and trust (which has lasted over 23 years) has been with my work colleague Michael Ricci. He is a warm and caring man and, in my mind, the embodiment of an empathetic spirit. Mike has been employed by my office (the Legal Aid Society of New York City) in various capacities, including working in the mail room, as a receptionist, a paralegal, a court liaison and a general Jack of all trades.
When you work with someone on a daily basis, you experience their life’s ups and downs as if they were your own. My friendship with Mike is no different. I can remember many years ago when Mike decided to marry the true love of his life, Dotti. Later, when he and his wife lost everything they owned (literally) during Hurricane Sandy, Mike, instead of wallowing in self-pity,
emphasized how lucky he was to be loved by such a wonderful woman. Although clearly a victim of incredibly bad fortune, Mike never complained about what he was going through, but in his true selfless manner he seemed more interested in hearing what minor inconveniences each one of us might have been experiencing at the time.
The truth is that Mike Ricci is one of a kind. I recall the day Mike started working for us. He made quite a first impression with his mullet haircut, protruding stomach and booming voice. It didn’t take long to realize that Mr. Ricci had found his perfect job, for Mike was truly for the underdog. He loved our mission and that attitude was readily apparent if you ever had the pleasure of watching him interact with our clients, or, as he would refer to them, his “brothers.” He even had a pit bull, claiming that the breed got a “bum rap.”
Mike has always demonstrated a willingness to give his all to the cause of serving those who needed help the most. The fact that he had to take three buses to get to work did not deter him from coming early and leaving late. In the vernacular of the criminal justice system, he was “a true believer.” He would go out of his way to make sure a client received the attention and assistance that they needed. His wife recollects that he often uttered a phrase that truly embodied the motto he lived by: “Everyone deserves a fighting chance!” His dedication and openness made it easy for him to become friends with hundreds of attorneys and support staff and court personnel. These past several years as legal aid liaison in a major felony court, he was able to utilize his connections to serve our clientele efficiently and expeditiously.
One of the most treasured accolades I have ever received in my 40 years of practicing law in the Bronx was the effusive praise he once bestowed on me one winter’s morning: “You really still care after all these years. I think that’s great.” (Of course Mike was not wearing a coat that morning, since he felt that our winters were his summers!)
One day not too long ago, Mike was noticeably grimacing in court. Of course he refused to complain even though later it was discovered that he was bleeding internally. He was forced to take a disability leave to deal with his severe diabetes and other related ailments. Finally, last week he returned to the job he loved so very much.
It was really uplifting to see him back on the job. He, as always, complimented me on my tie and suit: “I love the way you always dress for success” were his exact words, accompanied by a broad smile and a deep throaty laugh. I asked him how he was feeling and he said “fine” and mentioned how happy he was to be back: “I missed this place!” But as great as it was to see him, Mike looked tired and run down. By Thursday he was back in the hospital and last Friday night he passed away.
We all have people in our lives whose friendship we treasure. I am fortunate to have known a man who, in a truly empathetic fashion, cared deeply about his family, his friends and justice for the underdogs of this world. I am indeed blessed to have called Michael Ricci my friend.
Rest in peace, Mike. You will be missed.