Empathy for Empathy for Lack of Empathy for Empathy?
There are few things in the world that I am more passionate about – and protective of – than a book that I really love. While there are many books that I love, the books that mean the most to me are often the ones where the author is able to put into words something that I have thought about but haven’t known how to articulate in speech or writing. Discussing these books can feel like sharing a little piece of myself, and that’s scary. There’s a conflict between wanting to share the joy and wonder of the book and wanting to keep it all to myself and treasure it. With The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, a series of personal essays revolving around the theme of empathy, I didn’t have to worry about choosing between these impulses as our entire high school read the book (or should have, at least). I was excited about the discussions that would ensue from reading this book, because I was interested and excited to hear other people’s viewpoints on a book that had so captivated me. What I had not counted on was the fact that other people didn’t have the same connection with it that I did. I came to the discussions expecting everyone to have at least a certain degree of interest and engagement with the essays. This was not the case, as each person had a unique relationship with the text and many people were much less affected by it than I was. What I hadn’t considered was that by discussing the book with the other students, I would be sharing my responses to material that was important to me with people whom I would not have necessarily chosen to share these responses with.
This became evident to me in the very first discussion. I was prepared and excited to discuss several things, including the roots of empathy, whether others believed that it was a societally engrained trait or a biologically developed trait, and everyone’s personal experiences with empathy and with the book itself. I wanted the others to be interested in the things that I was interested in, to bring their different viewpoints to the text so that I could view it from different angles. Instead, I was met with questions that I felt barely skimmed the surface. I was prepared to wrestle with the deeper concepts, to get down to the grit, and was surprised by the abundance of purely plot-based questions.
The most common question that I heard reiterated several times throughout different discussions had to do with the second essay in the series, Devil’s Bait. This essay was one of the ones that I was extremely interested in. It focused on the experience of the author at the annual conference for people who identified as having Morgellons disease. This is a controversial medical condition where people claim to have bugs in their body, fibers growing out of their skin, and any number of maladies that are similar. Morgellons is controversial because most doctors believe that it doesn’t exist and is a symptom of a different mental disorder. People suffering from Morgellons are collectively diagnosed with delusions of parasitosis (DOP) and more or less dismissed by the medical community. This essay interested me because it spoke to the difficulties of empathizing with a group of people whose situation is different than anything that you have ever experienced. Jamison struggles with empathizing with the Morgellons patients for several reasons. How does she empathize without projecting, or trivializing the experiences of the person she empathizes with? From the essay: “With Dawn I fall into the easy groove of identification—I’ve felt that too—whenever she talks about her body as something that’s done her wrong… This resonance is part of what compels me about Morgellons: it offers a shape for what I’ve often felt, a container or christening for a certain species of unease. Dis-ease. Though I also feel how every attempt to metaphorize the illness is also an act of violence—an argument against the bodily reality its patients insist upon.”
Jamison realizes the dangers in trying to relate to other people, including the potential result of trivializing their struggles in favor of your own. This is something that I often worry about, that my empathy comes out sounding hollow or self-centered in an attempt to connect with other people. I was especially interested in hearing other people’s opinions on this issue and their own experiences with the difficulties of expressing empathy, or having others express their empathy. This is why I was so frustrated that almost every single discussion started with the question “So, do you think that Morgellons is real?” It drove me absolutely insane, not in the least because Jamison states in the text, “This isn’t an essay about whether or not Morgellons is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion.” In my copy of the book, this line is starred, highlighted, and underlined, and to this day remains undiscussed.
The other students’ fixation on the reality of Morgellons caused me to experience significant discomfort and frustration, which I didn’t realize until I was thinking about the discussions afterward. I was confused about how I had managed to disagree with every single thing that was said. I hadn’t considered that my expectations were perhaps unreasonable. I had expected every person to be as engaged as I was, and as curious and eager to discuss the book. I felt their discussion points were lacking in substance, because they were lacking in empathy. I was frustrated and almost disdainful of what I saw as the other readers’ unwillingness to connect and express their experiences with the book and with empathy in general. Discussions became a test for me—how could I listen to what the others said and express my disagreeance without personally attacking them and insisting that, No, you don’t get it, and could you at least try to empathize a little? With every comment of “She’s being kind of whiny” or “ I think she’s self-centered,” I grew more frustrated and more convinced that I was surrounded by people who were unable to empathize. I was shocked that these people were finding it difficult to empathize with her when I found it almost uncomfortably easy.
Looking back, I see this as a lack of empathy on my part. My inability to imagine people’s different responses to the essays as anything other than a lack of empathy revealed my own lack of empathy for their lack of empathy, as paradoxical as that may sound. This gave me a lot of personal confusion – I’ve always considered myself an extremely empathetic person, even when I was young. To find this gap in my empathy, a place of intolerance for other people’s intolerance or lack of empathy, caused me to feel the need to reexamine many things that I had assumed to be fact about myself, or as factual as possible.
I do not know if there were people who related to the book in a similar way. Perhaps there were. I wasn’t able to talk to every student reader, but even if I had, I might not have recognized the similarities. Words, usually so intrinsically connective, sometimes fail us. You search for certain words in response to others, to indicate a shared understanding, but sometimes the words aren’t there. Jamison struggled with the same issue, the specific wording of things, in the opening essay of the The Empathy Exams. She worked as a medical actor and as such pretended to exhibit the symptoms of an illness for graduate med students to diagnose. She then filled out checklists assessing their performances: “Checklist item 31 is generally acknowledged as the most important category: ‘Voiced empathy for my situation/ problem.’ We are instructed about the importance of this first word, voiced. It’s not enough for someone to have a sympathetic manner or use a caring tone. The students have to say the right words to get credit for compassion.” Finding the right words to express yourself is imperative – how are other people supposed to relate to you if you can’t make your meaning clear? On the other hand, it’s a unique challenge – everyone has a slightly different understanding of certain words, depending on their experiences with them and how they’re interpreted. This makes it virtually impossible to truly make your meaning clear to many people. Although it may reach several people, even a majority of people, there will always be people who don’t understand. I wonder if this is something that might have happened in my discussions of The Empathy Exams. Perhaps my excitement, and the way I phrased my questions, failed to register with other people the way I’d intended, and, moreover, perhaps I was so intent on locating the exact words and phrases to express my viewpoints that I failed to recognize the excitement within someone else.
Examining empathy through The Empathy Exams made me realize that I did not have empathy for other people’s lack of empathy. Because so many of the things that Jamison addressed were issues that I have been concerned with in the past, I let myself get caught up in their importance to me and failed to wonder why they weren’t equally, or identically, important to other people. It was an opportunity to reexamine my assumptions about myself —to be challenged by my reaction to other people’s reactions to a book that I reacted to strongly. This has been a difficult topic to explore in writing, because it feels as if the whole thing rests upon paradoxes and complications and repetition and empathy and empathy and empathy.>
About the book
Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about one another? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
About our Contributor
Claire Novick is a voracious reader with broad literary interests. She is a former district champion of the National Geographic B and will begin her first semester at Knox College this fall.