Happy EMPATHY EXAMS day! You’re all going out right now to buy this book, right?
Especially because you know I write a “why you MUST read this book” post about once a decade, so you know this is serious.
And that you must.
How do I explain THE EMPATHY EXAMS?
A long time ago, back when I used to actually write blog posts (and I think this is so long ago that I used to post them on my livejournal), I started a post that I never got around to finishing, because I am lazy, and because talking about things you love is hard, especially when you’re talking about writing that’s so good it makes you want to set your laptop on fire. I wrote (and bear with me, because this gets relevant):
"Here’s the thing about David Foster Wallace’s essays. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and when I do, it’s usually to educate myself on a topic I find interesting. When I’m in the mood for…well, I hesitate to call it spiritual enlightenment, since anyone who knows me knows this is a phrase I would never, ever use, so let’s say illumination, I turn to novels.
But that’s what DFW’s nonfiction writing does for me: illuminate.
Some of his essays just make me think. Hard.
But occasionally he writes something that, at least for the duration of my reading, changes everything I see and understand about the world.
Here’s something else I hesitate to say, because under normal circumstances these are really not words you would ever catch me using, but occasionally he writes something that, at least for the duration of my reading, makes me feel like a better person.
Or like I have the capacity to be a better person (not to mention a better writer).”
Just to be clear, Leslie Jamison is nothing like David Foster Wallace in any way—except for the fact that her writing does exactly the same thing. The fact that her essays are also beautifully brilliant interrogations of what it means to be human, and I love them with the same evangelical zeal. (Obviously.) Not since I picked up that first DFW essay collection have I felt the same kick in the gut, reverberation in my bones, glowing in my heart, whatever you want to call it (and here’s where I wish I could call in Leslie Jamison to get her to explicate the emotion, because that’s what she does best).*
So I’ll let her speak for herself. From the title essay (which you can read in full here, and I dare you to do so and not fall in love):
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
That last line, I believe in that, too. And I think reading books like this is as good as any a place to start.
*Disclosure: I actually could call Leslie, because I know her. Which I say less to admit any kind of potential bias and more just to brag, because seriously, how cool is it that I know someone who can write and think like THIS?