Culture At Large

The Empathy Exams’ call for courage

Allison Backous Troy

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is a tightly woven examination of a human expression that, according to Jamison, is more posture than emotion, more a way of being in the world than a way of feeling. And the way that Jamison's essays engage empathy - as pained observer, as awkward tourist and as someone seeking a sincere way of being in the world herself - prompts her readers to explore the horizons of suffering and to share in the pain of others in ways both uncomfortable and necessary.

Empathy is something that many people in Christian circles aspire to have. We believe that, by carrying the burdens of others, we are an effective witness of Christ’s love and compassion. But I have also seen the dark sides of Christian empathy. As someone who comes from a family background of abuse, I have had many well-meaning people try to empathize with me, only to sound flippant or demeaning. I have also said, “I know how you feel,” only to have no clue at all.  

Empathy, in Jamison’s view, is more complicated. In most cases, we don’t know how the other feels, and the barriers between our experiences and theirs are so deeply ingrained that, if we were to truly try and approach the pain of others, we would be mystified at the vast gulfs that lie between us.

But it is this gap that Jamison seeks to approach. And it is her voice, both highly informed and incredibly vulnerable, that brings us through a variety of experiences that test and refine Jamison’s understanding of empathy. She writes of her time as a medical actor, where her performances as a severely depressed seizure victim tested doctors’ abilities to diagnose and comfort. She exchanges pen pal letters with a prisoner. She recounts her abortion. Each chapter attempts to understand what it means to share in someone’s suffering, and how suffering affects not only the sufferer, but the person standing close by.

How we deal with pain has profound implications for how we live among others.

It is a gritty, difficult book. But I believe that Jamison’s particular path through her experiences and studies is both beautifully wrought and honestly given. Her sincerity - as unflinching as it is humble - moves the reader to see empathy as more than a tool for connecting with others, but a way of approaching pain and unexplainable cruelty.

“We should empathize from courage,” Jamison writes, “and it makes me think about how much empathy comes from fear. I’m afraid other people’s problems will happen to me, or else I’m afraid other people will stop loving me if I don’t adopt their problems as my own.”

And what brings us to courage? For Jamison, it is admitting that pain is real, that we hurt, that our attempts to approach and share the pains of others show that we want “our hearts to be open.” But to be open implies that we will hurt. When we read about Jamison’s abortion, for example, we can recoil, or we can step into the complex layers of hurt, loss and confusion that accompanied her in that experience. But we will, in some way, feel her pain. And how we deal with that pain has profound implications for how we live among others.

If, as Paul tells us, we are to “weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn,” it is vital that we approach the suffering of others with not only respect, but an understanding of our own vulnerability and hesitations. Jamison’s book provides a profound meditation on the nature of empathy, and it would behoove each of us to not only open our hearts, but to admit that the work of opening them is both daunting and holy.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books