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Do we always have to care about others?

Is “compassion fatigue” an embarrassing flaw, or an inevitability?

Afghan men and children reach out for food donated by a charity in Mazar-i-sharif on January 22, 2015. FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan men and children reach out for food donated by a charity in Mazar-i-sharif in 2015.
Getty Images

Last Father’s Day my wife bought me Air Pods Pro, a delightful pair of white ear buds. The sound quality is so pristine it brought tears to my eyes. The devices sleep in their own little sleek white lozenge that closes with a satisfying snap. Just the thing for the dad in your life and only $250.

Walking the dog around my leafy suburban paradise, I wear them, listening to podcasts and audio books and music. They do block out the world, so if Kitty starts straining toward a passing dog, I’ll ask “Is your dog friendly?” while plucking the tiny marvel out of my left ear so I can hear the reply.

Invariably, it is, and we humans chat superficially while our pets exchange sincere sniffs, tails wagging happily away. Then I slip the pod back in and float along like a bubble in the warm current of good feeling that is my life, for the most part.

There was that thin young man who approached me Monday on the three-block stretch that passes for a downtown. He had on the standard summer uniform: shorts, a baggy pastel oxford shirt, untucked. Perhaps more sunburnt than is typical. He could have been 30, could have been 50. Hard to tell in the three seconds I appraised him. He asked me something, I removed my earbud and smiled encouragingly, anticipating his question: sometimes people step off the train and need directions. I love giving directions. It makes me feel so useful.

“Can you buy me some food?” he said.

“No,” I replied curtly, automatically, jamming my Air Pod Pro back into my ear and hurrying away, surprised and rattled. I twisted my head, trying to track him out of the corner of my eye, in case he followed me.

Surprised because the refusal wasn’t me. I’m the sort of guy who would clap him on the back with a hearty “Of course!” and usher him into one of the fine eating establishments all around us. We were in front of Oliveri’s. Excellent lemon chicken. Across the street, Graeter’s, with its French pot process ice cream. That would perk up my new friend, and you’d now be reading the sad tale he’d unspool between bites of hot fudge sundae.

But that didn’t happen.

Parsing why I reacted that way, and whether I had done the right thing, my first thought was: I’m not obligated to underwrite the addiction of any passing junkie who asks me to.

A half-block later I stopped and turned, wondering if perhaps I’d made a mistake. Maybe I should go back and help. But he was gone.

I have a hunch what’s going on here. Looking back over the past year, I can’t help wonder whether compassion fatigue has set in. So much of the news demands you sympathize, or pause to understand, or at least momentarily think about people in circumstances far more difficult than your own. People who seem to be asking something of you — if not money, then time, attention, acceptance, approval.

Empathy is the new Mason-Dixon line. It’s the hoop many Americans won’t even try to jump through. Just the opposite; they seem to define themselves by who they’re not, vigorously trying to squash anybody who isn’t themselves, whether by passing laws to harass transgender youth, using the “Black Lives Matter” outcry as an occasion to remind everyone that THEIR lives matter, first and foremost, or passing laws demanding that history be even more whitewashed than it already is.

Remembering the caustic indifference of others is a welcome kick in the pants. I bobbled this guy, but there’s always another coming down the pike, palm out.

And since people on the left can get confused, just like people on the right, I should point out that I am not equating any group with beggary, other than placing them on the broad spectrum of matters that demand empathy. A realm where I hope to include myself.

Maybe it would help if I point out that the “only $250” in the opening paragraph was sarcastic. That’s a lot of money for a pair of electronic doohickies, more than I would ever spend on myself. That’s why my wife bought them. There are cheaper ear buds, but she knew Apple gear is so well-designed, it makes me proud to be a human being. A feeling hard to gin up nowadays after scanning the headlines.