Writers do anything to make enough money to keep writing. No one knows that better than Leslie Jamison, author of “The Empathy Exams” and a medical actor (among other things) on the side. This brilliant collection of essays opens with a piece about medical acting and the checklist Jamison uses to rate the medical students treating her fake illness. The most important item on the list is number 31—empathy.
What is empathy—an innate ability, an acquired skill, a learned outlook on the world? Do we dole out an allotment of empathy over the course of our lives, and do we earn a certain amount from others by being born? Is empathy a choice or a state thrust upon us? Like Jamison I believe in the structure of empathy, a definition that “suggests empathy is an edifice we build like a home or office—with architecture and design, scaffolding and electricity.”
Empathy, like love, is both an emotion and an action which requires consideration, cultivation and accepting how little we really know. Leslie Jamison’s essays explore the meaning of empathy on individual, cultural and global level. Part philosophy, part feature journalism and part bizarre self-reflection, this collection is one of the most important books I read in 2014.
When we cry while reading the newspaper, help someone lost find directions, and buy lemonade from an intrepid eight year old’s lemonade stand are we acting out of empathy, or out of a need to feel empathetic? Is there a difference?
“It was more like inpathy. I wasn’t expatriating myself into another life so much as importing its problems into my own,” Jamison writes. If I remember the helpless feeling of a child trying to bolster her lunch money with powder dissolved in water am I absolving myself of the acts of being an adult? Am I really being empathetic or am I using empathy as an excuse to ignore the rest of the world for the remainder of the day while I run between the little activities feels so necessary in adult life? Does reminding ourselves to empathize with another human being make us less genuine? No, according to Jamison. “It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.”
Jamison makes herself vulnerable, sharing anecdotes about herself that make Lena Dunham proud. Jamison tells her young self, pre-abortion and pre-heart surgery, “Getting each one fixed meant getting broken into again. Getting your heart fixed will be another burglary, nothing taken except everything that gets burned away.” She feels her own pain, removed from her present self, as though comforting a friend. Empathy in this case isn’t about understanding or returning to the exact emotional space of the a decades younger Jamison huddled in a doctor’s waiting room, but simply an acknowledgment that she was broken and she isn’t any more.
Can we feel empathy for a person’s feelings when we believe they created the circumstances that caused said feelings—for an inmate, a criminal, or a person suffering from a potentially psychosomatic disorder? Are their feelings any less real? Is sentimentality the Sweet’N Low of empathy, the saccharin to our sugar? Does living in poverty make empathy more or less necessary, or even possible? Jamison tackles all aspects of empathy, turning the emotion inside out, showing the true colors of a word many of us don’t actually understand. Empathy is an acknowledgment of what we do not know, an acceptance of what we cannot change, and a decision to act out of kindness and love anyway.
Jamison’s philosophic references come from all over: Russian folklore, Susan Sontag, Pope Alexander, Tennessee Williams, Guns N’ Roses and many others shape her sometimes rambling, but always insightful, narratives. Her book acts as a nod to humankind which “can hold agnosticism and sympathy all at once.”