March 27, 2016

"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."

From "The Empathy Exams," by Leslie Jamison:

30 comments:

Michael K said...

I was reading a thread at Huffington Post about the suicide bombing in Pakistan on Easter.

My comment was one of two that mentioned the victims were Christian. Of maybe 100.

The left is not into empathy.

coupe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rhhardin said...

It's definitely a women's election.

Chuck said...

As an adult with Aspergers, I would have to say that empathy is hard. It's not a matter of choice for some of us.

khematite said...

Kristen Monroe, a political scientist who for over a quarter of a century has studied people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, titled one of her early articles on the subject, "But What Else Could I Do?"

Kate said...

This makes me think of Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg speech. His context was faith, not empathy, but the gist is the same: faith must be paired with reason. The world had a hissy fit because he was not-so-covertly criticizing Islam. Empathy (or any emotion) allowed to run rampant without the moderation of reason is dangerous territory.

Anglelyne said...

Kate: This makes me think of Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg speech...Empathy (or any emotion) allowed to run rampant without the moderation of reason is dangerous territory.

Too bad his successor Pope Hippie didn't absorb the lesson.

I suspect the take-home lesson of the study covered in the previous post ("Does empathy make us immoral?"), however, is supposed to be that it's immoral to feel greater feelings of obligation to "our own" than to humanity in general.

Michael said...

In many areas of life, "going through the motions" repeatedly and conscientiously will in itself change your emotional state. Fake it 'til you make it.

Joe said...

To put it another way, the drowning man doesn't care why you saved him.

James Longfellow said...

The problem with the word empathy is that it has become a word that has been so twisted from its original meaning that it is difficult to know what anyone means by that term anymore unless they explain it in their text. Fortunately, if one reads the whole post, she does. So kudos to that. It's worth noting that the way she defines empathy is not the way it commonly defined today. So people who didn't click through to her post probably misunderstand the quoted text.

jdniner said...

I find I am never empathetic when I am ill with a virus. Emotions all absent.

traditionalguy said...
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traditionalguy said...

Empathy comes easier after one has suffered seriously themselves. Perhaps that is why women do it right. They can bear pain and suffering better.

Emotions are repressed by many men, especially if some loss can be seen as not our problem. But a burned man no longer thinks he is fireproof. Then he starts to feel a compassion for other suffering folks. Better Late than never.

Bob R said...

Empathy is a concept with a rather resent history. It is mostly self delusional: we don't feel others' pain - we merely indulge the fantasy. It is morally inferior to sympathy in every respect. Sympathy acknowledges the reality of the distance between others' suffering and our own. Sympathy doesn't seek to make the discussion "about ME." Empathy is a selfish fiction.

Joe said...

Bob, empathy doesn't mean we "feel another's pain", but that we understand it because we either went through the same, or very similar, experience and can put yourself in their shoes. It is, in many ways, a subset of sympathy and is neither superior nor inferior to the latter. Insincere empathy is no better than insincere sympathy.

Your claim that "[s]ympathy doesn't seek to make the discussion "about ME."" is nonsense. Empathy doesn't seek that, but both can be used in that fashion.

Laslo Spatula said...

Even Serial Killers can show Empathy.

They might leave the body face-up rather than face-down, for instance.

They might pull the dress back down over her naked hips.

They might remove any objects criminally inserted into the victim.

They might wipe all the semen off her body.


Actually, that last one might just be to evade the law.


Anyway, they still might feel a distorted form of Empathy, but never Sympathy: they can only be Sympathetic to themselves.

It is an interesting distinction.

Anyone who would like to discuss this further is welcome to meet me in the back of my White Van with No Windows In The Back.

I am Laslo.

Unknown said...

We have to learn all sorts of things, why should empathy be an exception? I see students applying to college with volunteering as part of their resume. For all practical purposes volunteer work is a requirement, which means it isn't voluntary. But so what? It's an enforced lesson, just like schoolwork. Nonetheless, I think a high school kid working for pay as a cashier, or a stockroom assistant or a laborer learns more empathy than an affluent kid working for free at the animal shelter, and learns more about handling adult responsibilities.

Michael K said...

" Nonetheless, I think a high school kid working for pay as a cashier, or a stockroom assistant or a laborer learns more empathy than an affluent kid working for free at the animal shelter, and learns more about handling adult responsibilities."

Medical school admissions committees don't agree and I was a minority of one who cared about this.

Unknown said...

"Medical school admissions committees don't agree and I was a minority of one who cared about this."

I can't discern your opinion, but I think you see some merit in my opinion. I was on a scholarship committee some years ago and one of the students was embarrassed that he hadn't had any time to do volunteer work as all of his spare time was taken up bussing tables in the family restaurant. That struck me as every bit as worthy as the volunteer work some of his competitors had on their CVs. I think mine is a minority point of view. Jim.

Fred said...

Eh? Empathy is more than neurons firing? What, exactly, constitutes this more in the brain? Because the description sounds very much as if there is some nonphysical aspect of the brain that is 'choosing' to make the neurons fire.

traditionalguy said...

Who was the compassionate and totally empathetic man who served as President of the USA?

Hint: he was so empathetic that hurting Americans came to be called The Greatest Generation under his empathetic leadership syle and he was a New York Values man that loved rural Geordia.

Terry said...

The original essay is poorly written. Lemme check . . .
Oh yeah:
Leslie Jamison is a novelist and essayist living in Brooklyn. “The Empathy Exams” is the title essay of her second book, a collection that won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and will be published by Graywolf this April.
Another MFA who believes that they have something important to say to those of that have lived our lives, so far, without Leslie Jamison's input.
Leslie Jamison does not seem to know the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Terry said...

Empathy is something you feel. Sympathy is something you show. What it means to learn empathy is to learn to appear as though you feel something another person feels -- something that was explicitly mentioned in the instructions Leslie Jamison received during his/her fake patient gig. Doctors are expected to show empathy, not sympathy.
Maybe Leslie Jamison is working at a higher level than I am? He/she is writing ironically about a student physician showing empathy for a fake patient's medical condition?

Valentine Smith said...

Weird synchronicity: I just met and chatted with this woman not 6 hours ago. I interrogated her like some street shamus—Harvard grad, taught at Yale, Iowa Writers Workshop, teaches at Columbia. Got all that in about 30 seconds. Now none of those speak favorably to me but I would forgive her the foibles cuz she's sweet. And married to another writer. Damn.

Any way, I agree with her entire quote. It's my experience that makes me choose to somewhat identify with the stricken, not some noble emotion springing forth from my ideal moral character. It's not quite like that bullshit word compassion, the favorite virtue signaling device of my moral, economic and creative superiors. No one "suffers with" the afflicted, no one. Except perhaps some poor deranged soul without a center.

Chris N said...

A bit of social science research--->The 'It 'thing' that certain crowds talk about--->a social marker with increasingly less validity/relevance-->yesterday's news but a common reference point-->An article of blinding/binding faith to be used for political leverage and for in group/out group tribal and/or ideological identification.

What is the next 'empathy?

Check the academy, as a bit of research is probably being latched onto now, molded into novel theory which explains the world for the chattering classes, which becomes common knowledge heard as secular sermon by some, which down the line becomes an article of faith for a few true-believers; a weapon against non-believers/heretics.

Chris N said...

And if popular enough, concepts which come to be the latest moral movements driving social change, laws and policy.

To be backed by the power of the State, with consequences for all.

damikesc said...

Empathy is the most overrated and pointless of all human traits.

Assuming you can understand what somebody else is feeling is both asinine and utterly immaterial. It doesn't help me if somebody feels really, really bad for me.

Carol said...

We don't need no stinking empathy...social services will take care of everything.

SgtPete said...

Lack of empithy and overwelming apathy are the symptoms of those who do weed and other drugs. These drugs may be legal too. Not caring about others or even self causes a loss of selfworth, of careers and the family. Years fly by and they wonder what gives. We know this to be true because many of us have been there or worse are still there. Wake up, get a life, kick it, make a plan and be something. Being something is so much better than just excisting.

Gerard Grosso said...

Such nonsense.
The relevant question is NOT whether Empathy is 'spontaneous' or 'self-prompted', the question is whether or not it is 'coerced' by exterior 'culture/society', i.e., a form of group intimidation.....