Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Recent reading - The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Lately I've been doing a lot of 'empathy' reading. This isn't a formal book review, since I haven't finished the book yet.

"The Empathy Exams" by Leslie Jamison

At first, I wasn't sure if I was reading something true or made-up. By the second story, I was really confused, I thought it couldn't possibly be real.

Then I heard the author give an npr interview that made me realize that yes, this was definitely non-fiction. I wondered why I was so confused so I went back and re-read the first story and realized my mistake. The lines the author drew between herself and her subjects were very faint. In her essays she steps in so close to other people that she nearly becomes them. Perhaps it's her style, but it read like a novel to me.

The author also spent time asking herself if it was okay to feel empathy. She was an investigator; trying to find out the value of empathy both for the person feeling it, and for the subject of empathy (the person we are connecting with).

It gave me a lot to think about, and so far I'm really enjoying the book.


One thing I found interesting was her analogy* for meeting new people. She compared it to the idea of visiting a foreign country; people, she said, want to be the owners of their feelings. There are things we consider acceptable to talk about; and other things we do not like discussing at all, and we want to control who can access what part of ourselves.

I agree that it's a fun idea; thinking of people as the dictators of their own country. Some people have open borders and are welcoming. They love visitors and will allow anyone through, happily showing you around and forgiving any mistakes you make in dealing with the customs of the land. Other people show themselves as closed off (know any people like this?). If you want in, you have to have special permission, or you must have been born (in the country) part of their family to get full access. They tell the world that they don't want to share.

The idea that people can be possessive about their emotions really rung true for me. I was thinking about experiences I've had with people who are more willing to share their feelings if you gently request permission to cross their border. It's scary to think that someone is going to come marching right in. Who are they? Do they know our customs? Will they steal or hurt? We don't know unless we let them in. This is what being open is all about; being vulnerable to being hurt.

We possess our feelings like we possess our things. To borrow our things or to gain entry to our house, our culture tells us that we must ask permission. As much as I love this list of empathy traps, I would add 'not asking permission' to the list. If I say to you, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear about your dead cat. I'm sure that feels bad.", I'm marching across your border. I'm assuming I already know the customs (feelings) here and I can tell you all about it. I may as well visit a foreign country and assume everyone there speaks English. On the other hand, if I say "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear about your dead cat. I can't imagine how that feels, do you want to talk about it?" Then I'm letting them know that it's okay if they want to share their feelings, but it's also okay if they don't. I'm asking permission to cross their border.

What do you think of this idea?


*This was her analogy, not mine, I take no credit for it. These are just my musings on her idea. If you want to see the full concept - please go pick up the book and send the author some kudos.

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