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Filtering by Tag: empathy

Aaron Guest

Couple_Holding_Hands_on_a_Railroad_Track1 There were only a handful of parents at our daughter’s ballet recital. We were all dressed in jeans and jackets and shoes, our phones recording, sitting in the corner of the YMCA studio, our backs to the full-length mirrors. After the recital had begun, one mother began crawling across the wood floor, from one end of the studio to the other. Her scramble immediately struck me as unnecessary and annoying. Get up and walk.

“What kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion?” Leslie Jamison asks in one essay in her excellent collection The Empathy Exams. How dissimilar does a person’s life have to be before we fail to show them compassion? Jamison’s essays present us with people who believe they have worms emerging from the their skin, who drive themselves insane in highly competitive adventure races, who have abortions. When the realities grow farther apart from our own, it’s likely the capacity for compassion shrinks, she suggests.

But being a writer, I’m willing to wonder about others who inhabit a different reality. I relish this getting up and going outside of my own world. Crossing along a bridge as tenuous as a lone plank between cliffs. In doing so, I find myself unwilling to return the way I came. Maybe that’s a necessity for genuine compassion? You should be altered by the encounter.

Jesus was in constant fellowship with those who’s reality differed greatly from His own. But often when compassion eludes me, it’s when I share the prerequisite experiences and resources. When I find myself frustrated that similar realities don’t yield the same approach to a situation. Shouldn’t they just get up and walk? Jesus had a very specific image for this.

At home after the ballet recital, I voiced my frustration to my wife, a physician: It was ridiculous to crawl like that. But she’d seen this woman walking around at ballet class and noticed her gait was awry, maybe because of severe hip dysplasia. And if so, then it would’ve been easier for her to crawl than to stand and walk. And possibly hardest to watch her daughter tendu and relevé and plié, knowing her own limitations would prevent her from ever sharing in that reality.

I think Jamison might say even meeting the prerequisites can sometimes obtund compassion as a plank left in the eye blurs sight. In those cases, it’s best I do a little crawling about in my world, looking for that piece of wood. It’ll make a good bridge.

The Discomfort of Empathy

Jill Reid

empathy-john-edward-marinEach fall semester, I anticipate him. I keep open a substantial space in the syllabus for one of his plays. I move through Beowulf and trek through Chaucer until I arrive at that sweet spot – Shakespeare. But however giddy I am about the bard, each year I field the same question that, when pared down to its bare bones, asks – What does dead old Shakespeare have to do with me? What does this centuries old story have to do with my field of biology or law or business?

Like any educator, I welcome the questions. They give me the opportunity to acknowledge the relationship between the words we read and the world we inhabit. Especially, the questions give me the opportunity to talk about empathy, a topic getting a lot of press in education circles and one that has recently and brilliantly been addressed by Leslie Jamison in her book, The Empathy Exams.

 In my classroom, I often find that students struggle to connect the experience of discomfort to the experience of empathy. When my sophomore survey class finished Othello, some students kicked against the merit of a text they found so disturbing, so violently tragic. Despite their reluctance, the presence of their discomfort was the clearest sign that they had read the text with empathizing sensitivity. True empathy is a painstaking, uncomfortable process that resists the cheap comfort of stereotype, prejudice, and self-righteousness.

Writer James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Baldwin’s words suggest that we read not only for our own sake but also for the sake of others. We read not to escape from our own pain but to connect that pain to something larger than itself. And that connection occurs when a thoughtful reading snags our senses on the heartbreak or even foolishness of someone else, and we stop in our tracks and walk alongside that struggling character. Empathy does not require the reader’s agreement with a character’s choices, but it does require his understanding of that character’s plight. There is something Christ-like in becoming a reader vulnerable to the pain and hardship of a story’s characters, in extending grace “to the least of these.” Yes, characters in stories are fictional, but perhaps, if a reader can practice the act of empathy in the world of fiction, she can learn to render it even more graciously in the world of the hospital and the law firm and the boardroom.

(Painting by John Edward Marin)


Alissa Wilkinson

boyhood-linklater-14233-1 Richard Linklater made a movie about growing up called Boyhood. He cast a six-year-old boy named Ellar Coltraneto play Mason, an ordinary American boy growing up in ordinary American suburbs. Then he shot the story of Mason’s life over twelve years, ending as he graduates from high school and moves into his first dorm room in college.

There’s no plot to Boyhood. Or there is—Mason gets older, and so does everyone else. But that barely qualifies as a “story.” There isn’t a central conflict, exactly. There’s no motivation, no villain, no three-act structure with a climax and a resolution.

And yet the movie is gripping, in my opinion; funny and sweet, sometimes heartbreaking. It’s also gentle. You can sort of settle back into it and let it remind you of the best—and some of the not-best—bits of your own childhood.

This is a marvel to me, because as a writer of nonfiction I struggle all the time to shape “what happened” into a story. Bare facts don’t make a story. For writers of creative nonfiction, bare facts are the building blocks. Your job is to put them together so they make something with shape and meaning and substance—and something that will help the reader live her own life through yours.

The measure of a good memoir or personal essay, then, is that at the end the reader has not just learned something about you, the writer, but also something about themselves. They have navigated a trial, or relived an experience, or been given a roadmap for something they have not yet encountered. They have been put through an emotional experience and experienced a sort of holy catharsis, an empathy.

The story of Boyhood—perhaps more than any other film I can remember seeing—is unique, in that it is just as much about you out there in the audience as it is about Mason up on the screen. Watching the film leaves you feeling as if you’ve just relived your own childhood. It feels, oddly, as if you’ve been given a second passage into adulthood. Mason, and Linklater, have empathized with you. You leave the theater, and step into the light, and know yourself better.


Adie Kleckner

15 empathy1 Writing is often an act of stepping outside of one’s self. The skin we inhabit is not our own; we live in many rooms. The best writers, the ones that show us something familiar in a new way, that transport us from ourselves to something else, that cause us to experience sensation with linguistic sleight of hand, are also the most empathetic.

Tragedy strikes every day, each time wearing a different mask. But when the lightening strikes far away, how are the observers affected?

Several years ago Manny Fernandez of the New York Times reported on the murder of four women: Megan Waterman, 22; Melissa Barthelemy, 24; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27. All four of them had been reported missing with very little police response; all four of them were prostitutes.

I cut the article out and hung it in my room. To save it was a compulsion. I did not save it because “it could be me”—though how easy it is for our lives to gain momentum away from what we had planned them to be—but rather because I wanted to remember that these women had lived, for no other reason than that I didn’t know that they were alive before they were murdered.

Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams breaks down the human capacity to share someone’s life. She writes that, “when bad things happen to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.”

Some who saw the New York Times article hanging above my desk asked me if I knew the victims. I did not, but my response to their deaths was just as real as if I had.

To inhabit someone else’s tragedy is an act of surrender. Of giving up ourselves, what makes us individual, in exchange for someone else’s individuality. “We care because we are porous,” Jamison claims.

It is this porous-ness that is both our salvation and downfall. We are vulnerable to tragedy, whether it is our own or someone else’s. But it is this vulnerability that fosters compassion.