Empathy Lessons ... from a Hitman

An excerpt from "Wanting: the Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life"

Dave Romero had a thin ponytail and a sallow face. His narrow eyes and deep crow’s feet gave the impression that he could read your soul. He walked proudly, with the confidence of someone who never failed to even a score.

He showed up at the front door of my house at seven o’clock in the morning as I was getting ready to take my dog for a walk. When I heard the doorbell, I thought it was the Mormon missionaries again. But they don’t come at seven a.m. What I found instead was Dave Romero, “Customer Relations Specialist” of Fyre Pharmaceutical (not its real name), come to collect a debt.

My e-commerce company was flailing after a buyout deal fell through thanks to the Great Recession. I’d already maxed out my credit to keep the company afloat while I figured out next steps. In an effort to buy myself some time, I made a list of the suppliers I would pay first, a sort of debt triage plan.

My decision to exclude Fyre Pharmaceutical from my list of priority payments would have been different had I known that the company’s founders were rumored to have connections with organized crime, that they were said to be involved in gun trafficking, and that one of my competitors mysteriously vanished after crossing them. 

I had interacted with Dave three times before. The first was an unpleasant phone call during which he informed me that my payment was late; offended, I snapped back with a full-throated defense of my excellent payment history. The second was an unannounced visit to my office, where he confronted me and told me that he wasn’t a patient man; he threw a pair of dice on my desk and left. The third was when he showed up at a local bar during Sunday football—no idea how he’d known I was there—and told me that he “means what he says” while beating one of his fists against his palm like he was tenderizing meat; the bouncers escorted Dave out. As he left, he made the figure of a pistol with his thumb and forefinger, and pointed it at me. 

This was now the fourth visit from Dave, and I didn’t know what it meant. 

He seemed different this time. He began with small talk. He asked me how I was doing. He commented on the weather. Is this how it goes? I wondered. Was it the happy-go-lucky backslapping before a guy gets whacked on The Sopranos?

I bumbled nervous replies. I stood taking up as much space in the front door as I could to prevent my dog Axel, who was standing behind me, hair on end, from slipping out. Dave was standing too close, seeming like he wanted to slip in. 

He drew even closer and lowered his voice. “Can you please, um, quick handle this bill by Monday morning so I don’t have to … come back?” He spoke quietly, calmly, and courteously while he twisted one of the gaudy rings on his left hand. 

There was no way that I could pay him that soon. 

Before I had a chance to respond, he continued: “I hear you’re having a big company barbecue here tomorrow night.” 

It was true. I hosted a monthly party at my house with rolling invitations to people at my company. This time, though, I had invited everyone. I worried that it might be our last rendezvous if things didn’t turn around. 

But how did Dave Romero know about it? 

“Mind if I come?” he asked. 

It didn’t seem like a question. I was growing increasingly confused and nervous. I just wanted Dave off my porch. “No, I mean yeah, sure, people start showing up at seven, you can stop by.” The words came out of my mouth. I’d never refused a request to come to one of my parties—certainly not to anyone’s face. I didn’t know how. 

And now I had invited a hitman into my home.

Dave showed up with a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon and insisted I enjoy it with no more than one ice cube. The party was a hit. When the last dregs had been drunk and the last ember on the grill had died, nobody wanted to go home. Including Dave Romero. 

Dave sat out back with a few of us around the fire pit. I’d already sweated through two shirts and thought I might need to do another outfit change by the end of the night. 

He had been coy about his true reason for being there. I had not told anyone else about my interaction with him from the day before. Only a few people in the company besides me had interacted with Fyre Pharma in their job roles. Most people had no idea who he was. “I work with Luke,” he said when asked. And that was that. Nobody was talking shop, and nobody cared. From time to time I invited an outsider to these barbecues, so people just assumed Dave was another one of my weird friends. 

Dave, who had been mostly silent as a few of us sat around the fire, spoke up during a break in the storytelling. “What’s the unhealthiest thing you’ve ever done?” he asked. 

I admitted that I’d drunkenly eaten a double cheeseburger sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme glazed donuts in college. Paul said he had a fair amount of unprotected sex while living in Thailand. Jessica said she used to do whippets. Her husband, Tom, shared that he had secretly reverse-mortgaged their home to place risky bets in the stock market while their first baby was on the way. 

“I killed a man,” Dave said. 

I stared into the fire watching the flames lick the logs, wondering if I’d heard right. I felt Dave’s eyes on me and everyone else’s eyes on him. The fire was dying down. I tossed in a leftover marshmallow and watched it burn. 

Dave scooted up in his seat and leaned forward on the balls of his feet. “What would you all dream of doing if you stopped worrying so damn much about money?” 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d have to stop worrying so much about money first.”

Over the next hour, Dave asked increasingly personal questions of everyone around the fire—questions that are usually answered in a eulogy, not at a casual work gathering. What’s the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done? Whom have you deeply loved? Where do you go when you want to numb the pain? 

Dave was vulnerable, so others were, too. Dave told us that he wanted to use the last decade of his life—which he was convinced he was in—to fulfill some of the promises he’d made to people, like taking his nephew skydiving, visiting prison inmates once a month, and getting out of his current line of work. 

It was after midnight when people started to filter out. Dave was one of the last to leave. I shook his hand and told him that I’d be in touch so that we could handle everything. He laughed and put his hands on my shoulders. “You’re okay, Luke, you know?” He slapped my back and stumbled out the front door to catch a cab. 

I found out later that week that Dave suffered a heart attack and died. Someone at Fyre Pharma told me that Dave was not a hired hand but a partner, and that he had said that we were “reconciled.” I never heard another word from them.

What happened that night is something I now recognize as disruptive empathy. The cycle of conflict that stems from unchecked mimesis (unconscious imitation)—like that of a debt collector and a debtor, each responding mimetically to the aggression of the other—was derailed. There was an unexpected breaking in of empathy, something that transcended the moment. 

Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” 

This is how negative mimetic cycles start. We are not condemned to them, though. 

When we make the effort of getting to know people at their core, we reduce the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions. Knowing someone at their core requires sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action. Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior. 

A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals. Dave changed my way of thinking and my reactionary impulses by modeling something different—a core desire that is common to every person, but which often goes unfulfilled: to know and be known by others. 

Adapted from Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.