By Amy Sterne
A few weeks ago I finished reading The Empathy Exams, a recently released collection of essays by Leslie Jamison. Like most great books, certain portions of it kept popping into my head long after I had sadly soaked up the last sentence. In the opening essay that bears the same name as the collection, Jamison recalls her experiences working as a medical actor. In her position, she acts as a patient and evaluates the level of empathy of the medical students while they pretend to treat her. While this is simply the premise for Jamison’s deeper exploration into physical and emotional pain and the ways that we share that pain with others, I couldn’t help thinking, would I pass an empathy exam?
Scientific studies show that many of the same areas in our brain that are active when we are in pain are also active when someone we care about is in pain. Being empathetic towards those that we love comes naturally to us. We see a close friend or family member emotionally wrecked, or physically suffering, or over-the-moon joyful and we share those feelings. However, when we witness the suffering of someone that we don’t already love, that we don’t know, that perhaps we feel we don’t even understand, empathy becomes more difficult. I think as imperfect people, it is normal for us to err on the side of apathy rather than empathy. Apathy is the easier of the two actions, but certainly not the most helpful.
I started thinking about how we can fight those apathetic tendencies and engender empathy in ourselves and others, particularly when it is the most difficult. How can we use empathy to grow? I think one of the answers lies in diversity. When we expose ourselves to unique and interesting voices, we hear people who on the surface seem completely different from us. Sometimes these stories challenge and overcome our prejudices. Sometimes these stories give us a context for someone’s actions that give us a deeper understanding of a whole situation. The more we listen to these stories, the more we understand the individual pain and our shared humanity. Stories connect us, and those connections become the building blocks for empathy. Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, the author of Leaving for America, said, “It’s hard to hate someone whose story you know.” Sharing stories, telling ours and listening to others, not only creates empathy but also diminishes hate.
I like to think that while Duende’s mission statement is to give a voice to underrepresented groups in today’s literary scene, what we are really doing is helping to spread empathy around to those that need it most. This is not to say that certain people deserve more empathy than others, but that the stories that come from groups that are underrepresented in the literary community simply are not seen. Their voices are valuable, they have the ability to bring depth and breadth and texture to our ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be human. Without a platform those voices can only reach so far.
I think the other way that we can create empathy is by pushing ourselves in the direction of it. Jamison says it more eloquently than I could near the end of The Empathy Exams, "Empathy [is] a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse . . .The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations. . .
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise 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."
Let’s make it our intention to self-evaluate and strive in the direction of empathy instead of apathy. Let’s be grateful for the diverse stories in the world today, learn as much as we can from them, and allow them to move us to celebrate our similarities rather than our differences.