A Discussion on How We See Certain Things in Leslie Jamison's Essay The Empathy Exams

Categories: Empathy

Human nature has certainly evolved throughout the years, more and more skin is revealed in photographs, ten year old boys play video games where “winning” involves beating up an innocent bystander, stealing his car and escaping from the police, and last but not least people idolize Justin Bieber. While society has certainly gone through some corruption, human beings still have a conscious. We still have a sympathetic side when we watch a news headline regarding a school shooting, we still attend funerals and give our condolences to the particular family. Some things never change, but in Leslie Jamison’s essay collection titled, “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison makes us reconsider how we view certain things, and by things I am referring to the concept of empathy. Jamison takes the idea of empathy to another extent, an extent not fathomable by many human beings. Jamison’s mind proves to be erratic, constantly venturing off into uncharted waters and returning transformed. It is within this spontaneity, this consistent transformation that we can clarify her ideas, or at least her intentions, and fill in the blank space that she leaves for her readers.

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In Jamison’s opening essay, “Empathy Exams,” Jamison delves into her profession as a medical actor. In her narrative, she describes how the medical students proceeded to encounter her character’s emotional distress, most of the time with cliché statements such as “that must be so hard” or “that is so awful.” You have unquestionably heard one of these phrases utilized in your life experience; they have become a kind of social etiquette.

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In simple terms, statements like these are attempts at expressing empathy towards another individual. Within Jamison’s first five pages, she immediately challenges this social convention and redefines the term empathy:

Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. (“Empathy”, 5)

At this very early point in the essay progression, Jamison has just thrown her readers a curveball. Genuinely feeling bad for someone or using one of those aforementioned cliché lines is no longer good enough to satisfy the conditions of empathy. Jamison’s ideas challenge the basic understanding of human interaction. How can we really express care for one another? How can we truly feel and comprehend another individual’s pain?

While Jamison initially presents her concern for the empathy of others, she begins her pursuit of empathy by relating personal adversity to the reader; specifically an abortion she received. By understanding herself, by coming to terms with her physical and emotional pain, she is able to get a better sense of what others want. The first side-affect of Jamison’s pain was a desired attention, specifically from her boyfriend. She describes this attention was so great it was impossible to obtain as she writes, “I needed to feel he was as close to this pregnancy as I was…” (“Empathy”, 9) As Jamison recovered, her experiences carried over into her sense of empathy. Her attempt to display empathy now included the belief that “hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others.” (“Empathy”, 20) Jamison applied this new perspective when her brother was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. Jamison would wake up in the morning and check herself for a fallen cheek, a drooping eye, a collapsed smile, otherwise common symptoms of the disease. As deeply and passionately as Jamison immersed herself into her brother’s body, her reflection on this attempted empathy ultimately stirs her to a new direction: “I wasn’t feeling toward my brother so much as I was feeling toward a version of myself – a self that didn’t exist but theoretically shared his misfortune ” (“Empathy”, 22). Jamison now considers the selfish motive behind this form of empathy. This excerpt highlights a very important aspect to Jamison’s style, her inflicted self-doubt. In her self-doubt, her deepest most analytical thoughts come to life. She continually reckons with herself, never satisfied with an answer. This ultimately transitions herself into a further level of thinking, attempting to account for this self-doubt.

As Jamison’s effort to dissect the foundations of empathy, she eventually gets to a form of empathy she likes to call “Tourism Empathy.” Jamison ridicules tourists and their attempt to put themselves in the face of adversity. Ultimately, she describes the “connection” tourists attempt to make as a failed attempt at empathy: “This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy. We take it like a shot of tequila, or a bump of coke from the key to a stranger’s home” (“La Frontera”, 59). Jamison believes empathy is a very personal topic between two people; more personal than many people would believe is possible. Jamison is disgusted with this idea of “observatory empathy,” and swiftly transitions to a very popular reality TV show Intervention to stir her reader’s judgment. The show attempts to bring its viewers into the life of a struggling addict and captivate viewers by showing the horrifying life choices made my various addicts and lastly showing the thrilling intervention and recovery process. Jamison begins to describe the type of empathy that the show creates: “They (viewers) want to know something the addict doesn’t. They want the intervention to be climatic, surprising, and powerful. They want to be in on it. Don’t throw your life away, Andrea, they’d say, if they were in the room. I think you can make it.” (“Pain Tours”, 83) As compelling as reality television can be, Jamison is shamelessly mocking reality television fans. She undoubtedly neglects this idea as a form of empathy as she states, “The TV is a portal that brings the horror close, and a screen that keeps it at bay” (“Pain Tours”, 83). Human nature enjoys it so much because it filters out the bad, and through the invention of the wireless remote, it is effortless to monitor what is portrayed through the screen. In Toni Morrison’s essay, “Strangers,” Morrison elaborates on a valuable theme that we look through strangers and only see what we want to see in them because we fear being hurt by the truth. As we fear strangers, we also fear empathy. It’s not easy to fully immerse yourself into the body of another individual. It is mental anguish. In life, there is always the easy way and the hard way. Filters are the easy way out, facing the raw content head on is of course the hard way but the right way. Jamison realizes it can be quite overwhelming but highlights the necessity in order to achieve the desired empathy. She belittles the idea that a reality television show can relate to you the reality of another person’s struggles. She comments on, in her opinion, the only way this experience can be obtained: “You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you” (“Pain Tours”, 90).

The relationships between the progression’s essays are crucial in Jamison’s pursuit to deepen the concept of empathy. She writes essays about a variety of topics including a possibly “conceived” disease, poverty tourism, poor working conditions, and the hypocrisy behind the popular reality TV show Intervention. A key threshold these essays share is that Jamison initially develops them through a journalistic perspective. However, Jamison’s effectiveness derives from her ability to transition from observatory writing and pursue personal meaning. For example, in her essay “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison writes about Morgellons Disease, a rare skin condition that can not however be clinically confirmed as a real disease. Doctors therefore diagnosis this disease as a psychological problem. Jamison attends a gathering of Morgellons disease victims and describes the scene, describes some individual cases and so forth. In the later part of the essay, Jamison makes a push to deviate from her journalistic work as she attempts to form a connection with these victims:

I walk among the young and healthy and I am more or less one of them. I am trying not to itch. I am trying not to think about whether I’m itching. I am trying not to think about whether I’m itching…then it starts happening, as I knew it would. After a shower, I notice small blue strands curled like tiny worms across my clavicle. I find what appear to be minuscule spines, little quills, tucked into the crevice of a fortune line on my palm. (“Devil’s Bait”, 46)

Stylistically, we are beginning to observe a pattern. When Jamison attempts to hammer the reader with an important concept, she quite often utilizes anaphora or simply repetition to instill this viewpoint inside the reader. In this except, we are witnessing a powerful and prevalent phenomenon called reverse psychology. Jamison is intensely concentrating on avoiding the sensations of the disease, however, she has already accepted the fact that the symptoms will unveil themselves in some form, as she says, “I knew it would.” Throughout her work, Jamison attempts to fathom the power of a mental connection as in reality, she greatly craves its existence. She feels the best way to connect, the best way to display empathy, is through engaging yourself mentally and physically into the struggles of others. This very idea drives Jamison’s essay progression: she is genuinely captivated by the porousness of the borders between herself and others.

Jamison has reckoned with topics that create self-doubt over her idea of empathy. Jamison is a brilliant writer who consistently utilizes very sophisticated diction and sentence structure. In her essay “Morphology of the Hit,” her sophistication suddenly disappears. In the essay, she describes a trip to Nicaragua where she was unexpectedly punched in the face walking down a street. Blood flowed onto her clothes and her nose was physically distorted due to the strike. Compared to the sophistication she has displayed in portraying events in essays like “Empathy Exams,” “Devil’s Bait,” “La Frontera,” and “Pain Tours,” Jamison unexpectedly goes silent: “Maybe I didn’t have the right to need anything from that place. Maybe that didn’t make it right that I got punched in the face. But maybe I wasn’t entirely innocent, either. So now I’ve given away the ending. I got punched.” (“Morphology of the Hit”, 71) Jamison is never short to sell a big moment, except here. Nothing fancy occurs in this essay, the diction is surprisingly simplistic. Physically, it is her shortest essay. Jamison simply goes silent, and she somewhat admits to this fact in a statement at the end of the essay: “When I got back from Nicaragua and tried to explain what had happened to me, I felt like I was constantly shuffling together pieces of an elaborate puzzle I couldn’t see the edges of: violence, randomness, impersonality and swollen face, pure cash and tourist guilt” (“Morphology of the Hit”, 76). Jamison openly acknowledges there is more of an elaborate story to her suffering that night, she admits to the fact that she can not physically tell her full story. Recall this quote from earlier in my essay:

Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. (“Empathy”, 5) 

Focus mainly on the line “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.” Now, Jamison has just confessed she can’t quite give answers to certain questions. Her experience was so traumatic, her emotions so unexpectedly shattered, that words can’t physically grasp the suffering she has endured. Her simplistic structure in this essay symbolizes the impossibility in fully comprehending Jamison’s pain. So how can you demonstrate empathy, the empathy Jamison describes in her very first essay, if the “questions whose answers need to be listened to” do not have answers? It makes it relatively difficult wouldn’t you say? Maybe even impossible. However, in Jamison’s physical simplicity, brilliance shines through the fourth grade vocabulary as she is able to shed light upon her own question. She comes to comprehend the difficulty behind her question. She comes to realize the borders between herself and others may not be so porous after all, once again evoking a new train of self doubt.

Jamison’s essay progression never comes to a set conclusion. There is never a set conclusion, a set definition of empathy. Jamison, in her deep analysis of herself and others, continually finds details, stories, accounts, experiences, etcetera, that contradict previous ideas.

Each essay creates somewhat of a blank space, later to be filled by another essay but simultaneously creating another blank space. It is a rather irking cycle for Jamison’s readers but a cycle that truly represents the mindset of Leslie Jamison.

Works Cited 

Jamison, Leslie. Empathy Exams: Essays. Graywolf, 2014. Print. Morrison, Toni. Strangers. Print.

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A Discussion on How We See Certain Things in Leslie Jamison's Essay The Empathy Exams. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-how-we-see-certain-things-in-leslie-jamison-s-essay-the-empathy-exams-essay

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