Empathy and essays

“This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.”

In Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison’s wonders, at length, about the complex nature of pain and empathy. There are a lot of components that make this essay powerful, one of which is the way it’s structured. She uses her job as a medical actor to establish a lighthearted, almost comical tone in her introduction, and the fact that she’s literally taking on these new personas in her job allows her to remain, at first, somewhat distant from her topic. This distance helps to create a certain comfort in the reader that prepares him for the gradual decent into “deeper levels of honesty” that she divulges a quarter of the way through, as the essay becomes considerably more personal. At first, she is describing empathy in terms of her job and the doctors that are being evaluated by how well they can convey it; she is describing empathy through the lens of Stephanie Phillips. In a way, this is similar to how McPhee uses the game monopoly as a gateway into his views of society and urban life.  Emerson would be pleased, as these authors have succeeded in “put(ting) the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them.” Although McPhee accomplishes this in a way that is much more tangible- through the use of a well known board game, Jamison’s abstract examinations and ideas are made palpable by her anecdote’s. Her revelations resonate with readers not just because of their power, but also because of how they are delivered.

A lot of the essays that we’ve read have been, at least to some extent, about the act of essay writing itself. There are only a few moments in which Jamison explicitly mentions that she’s a writer, but her reflections on empathy could also be read as examinations of her feelings towards essay writing. She writes, “This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.” Isn’t this (amoung other things) what essay writing is? Often times, we start with a feeling, an event, an object, a board game or occupation, something that resonates with or at least strikes us in some way, and we have maybe just the smallest inkling that if we examine it further, it could lead to a deeper understanding of something and others might be able to relate to that. We want them to relate to that, but sometimes this thing is so personal that we don’t want to share it, or we fear we don’t do it justice. “I felt simultaneously like I didn’t feel enough and like I was making a big deal out of nothing.” This is how I feel almost every time I sit down to write. I want to break down whatever it is that I’m trying to describe so that I can finally understand it, and at the same time, I am constantly asking “myself what’s the point? Am I not just over thinking this?”

Well, I guess one of the points we do this is sort of summed up by Susan Orleans in Introduction to The Best American Essays:

“Our voices matter to each other; we do wonder what goes on inside each other’s heads; we want to know each other, and we want to be known.”


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