Jan 25, 2023
I’ve recently finished The Empathy Exams by author, Leslie Jamison. While I’ve linked to Amazon, should you find yourself wanting to read this, I would recommend going to a local bookstore instead; I suppose the first person to PM me (if any) could also have my copy.
On the face of it, this non-fiction work by this Yale employee and Harvard graduate examines the topic of empathy. The questions that I felt the book wanted to ask me were:
What is empathy?
What are the limits of empathy?
Can true empathy exist?
Most people (at least the ones I’ve spoken to) seem to treat empathy and sympathy as equivalent, but they’re not. Webster would define empathy as:
: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
also : the capacity for this
: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
With that, sympathy shares something in common with empathy, in that both display a sort of sensitivity. Where empathy and sympathy part ways is that empathy purports the ability of, “Vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another…” and, to that extent, the concept of empathy becomes flat nonsense to me. I understand the intent; I don’t understand how that intent could actually manifest.
Two traits that Leslie Jamison, and myself, would seem to share is that we both write things and are alcoholics. I want to make it clear that she is an author, which is not a term I would apply to myself. She might not even be an alcoholic, really, but that was the impression The Empathy Exams gave me. If not, she had to be on the cusp, at least at one point.
In that much, I can sympathize with her as I understand what it is to be a writer and to be an alcoholic. Hell, on a good day, I might even be able to relate to her on some level. That said, I could never empathize with her, or even hope to.
Her experience is not my own and I cannot vicariously experience anything through her; I couldn’t achieve this even if she did fully communicate all of the elements of the definition in an explicit manner. While Jamison and I may share a few traits, everything else about the two of us is different.
For one thing, I have no idea what qualities or sets of circumstances would lead to Jamison being an alcoholic. There were a few aspects of her life, shared in the book, which I am sure were contributing factors, but I don’t know to what extent those things contributed, and obviously, don’t know what I don’t know to the extent of contributing factors that she has not shared with me.
I know why I write, but I don’t know why she writes. I know that when the, ‘Wizard,’ websites were bought out, the buyers noticed (mainly from my posts) that I am a better than average (though not by much) writer and pursued me to write on a paid basis. That, “Though not by much,” was added by me, by the way, they didn’t say that.
I guess that only explains why I am a paid writer. For non-gambling related writings, writing simply helps me organize and compartmentalize my thoughts on things, and while I will interact, I really don’t care whether or not anyone else reads it. I’ll usually put it somewhere so that someone might read it, should they wish, like this recent Earthbound review on Wizard’s DiversityTomorrow website, but I really don’t care if it’s read or not.
The point is that I can take someone with whom I have some commonalities, or shared characteristics, but that doesn’t create in me the capacity for empathy. I am not them. To whatever extent I am even capable of sympathy, or understanding, it will still be framed by the way that I have learned to think, my observations and my experiences.
Honestly, I don’t see how it could be any other way. Until you are able to think like another person thinks, or experience the way another person experiences, I don’t think empathy is possible. Is striving for empathy a noble goal? I don’t know. I don’t know what difference might exist between empathy and sympathy, at least in effect, unless the would-be empath views it as some form of expression and understanding superior to sympathy.
I’m also not suggesting that nobody should attempt empathy. I already don’t think the literal definition of empathy is possible, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t permitted to see value in the attempt. Maybe one could argue: Just because you will never actually touch the stars doesn’t make the reaching invalid.
But, this is ultimately going to be an article about gambling. I promise. At least, somewhat.
The Empathy Exams succeeded in making me think about things. I disagree with some of it, agree with some of it and flatly don’t understand certain sections of it. Of course, being the non-empathetic person that I am, some of the questions that this work compels me to ask myself are based entirely on my own experiences and observations.
Is empathy nothing aside from mere pretension? In trying to achieve empathy, are the would-be empaths nothing more than actors simply trying to familiarize themselves with a script and learning what role their characters are expected to play?
My answer to the first question is: It depends.
I think that masturbatory attempts at empathy are nothing more than pretense that fail to even rise to the level of a merely sympathetic, “That sucks.” I believe there are instances where the would-be empath, rather than actually trying to understand the other person, really intends to make a show at just how well they understand the other person. It’s almost as though there is some unscored contest to be the most empathetic, to understand the other person better than anyone else does, even if this purported higher level of understanding doesn’t actually meaningfully improve the other person’s material circumstances.
I don’t doubt that some people could fake this understanding better than others, or alternatively, come closer to reaching the stars than someone else can. For my part, I know that I couldn’t do it, so my tendency is to not even try. I’m not convinced that my trying would accomplish anything greater than mere sympathy and, with as much feeling as I can muster, “That sucks.” I know I can say, “That sucks,” well enough.
Does that make me an asshole? Maybe. At least I’m an authentic asshole willing to admit his own limitations for emotional expression.
The first chapter of The Empathy Exams is about playing pretend. Our author, Jamison, once worked as a, “Medical actor,” which is to say she was given a script and list of symptoms and paid to pretend to be a different person so medical students could diagnose her. Previously, I was unaware that such an occupation existed, but it makes sense that it does.
Our author gets into, “Checklist Item #31,” which is whether or not the doctor voiced empathy for the patient and what the patient is going through. The author suggests that this was the most important item, but I would be lying if I claimed to know why. If I present with an ailment, then I just want the ailment corrected; I honestly couldn’t be paid to care whether or not the doctor empathizes with me, “Just the facts, Doctor, thank you.”
Of course, I’m something of a pragmatist. There’s no expression of empathy, or even sympathy, that is going to alleviate my ailment. Hollow words falling on deaf ears. On a bad day, I’ll see it as pretense and it will merely annoy me. Quite frankly, especially if I was in some sort of life-threatening situation, I would prefer that my doctor not care about the outcome at all, but rather, have an unyielding focus on just trying to rid me of the problem because it’s their job.
A MORE MASCULINE WAY OF THINKING, I THINK?
Much of the book was lost in translation as there were some sections wherein I understood the words being used and definitions of those words, (except one, which I looked up), but the words were being used in an order such as to be a foreign language to me.
Several sections were flowery waxing poetic for what seemed no reason other than to see how well the author could do so. I think pretty well. I’m guilty of the same thing, but my floweriness comes from the overuse of technical language, from time to time. I guess we all want to prove we’re smart.
Jamison is certainly more intelligent than I am—perhaps in all ways, but certainly in some. With a foreign language, you at least recognize that words with meaning are being used, and if you can guess at a close approximation of their spelling, you might look them up in a translation dictionary later; with Jamison, some of the flowery waxing poetic I knew enough to recognize as discourse on the experiencing of emotion…but it’s in a language that I’ve never heard for which no dictionary is available. Or, if I have heard it, I didn’t understand it any better on those occasions, either.
Jamison had the misfortune of an unwanted pregnancy (for which she would get an abortion, but has since become a mother) and a heart condition requiring surgery in close succession. I know what unwanted pregnancies mean, and what heart conditions mean (at least, vaguely,) but this only helped emphasize my notion that the illusion of empathy is mostly mere pretense. How can I imagine what it would be like to be pregnant and have to make the choice when I am not even capable of getting pregnant? I’ve observed people who have had heart conditions, but I know enough to know that mere observation is a poor substitute for experience.
When it came to the abortion, Jamison wanted something from her boyfriend that he was either incapable, or unwilling, to provide…most likely the former.
She texted him something; he failed to respond in a timely enough fashion; she got upset. Same song and dance. Story told a million times. Probably some variation experienced by most of us, on one end or the other, but probably both.
Jamison also contacted her heart doctor about whether or not the abortion center would need to know what was going on when it comes to that end of things; they didn’t. The doctor curtly asked if there would be anything else and Jamison broke down into tears. The doctor would later apologize for her curtness, with some minor prodding from Jamison’s mother, but my tendency is to think no apology was needed.
At most, I would be sorry that the other person was somehow hurt, but not for my actions that led to that result. My actions (were I the doctor) were certainly not meant to effectuate such a result, and nor could I predict that they would, so why would I apologize other than to the extent that the other person was, in fact, hurt?
Jamison also noticed the same doctor recording facts about Jamison on audio, that way she could ask questions that would make a show of caring about Jamison later. We all know that the doctor can’t be expected to remember everything about a person, especially those things that aren’t strictly medically relevant, so even Jamison recognizes the effort…even if it does make the questions ring a bit hollow.
If this sort of falseness is perpetrated by people who get into an industry because, at least many of them claim, they care about people and want to improve the conditions in which they find themselves, then what does that say about the prospects for genuine emotional responses, or for empathy, amongst those of us who are not in professional pursuit of that goal?
Anyway, I tend to think her boyfriend, at that time, had a process similar to mine. She writes:
Dave doesn’t believe in feeling bad just because someone else does. This isn’t his notion of support. He believes in listening, and asking questions, and steering clear of assumptions. He thinks imagining someone else’s pain with too much surety can be as damaging as failing to imagine it. He believes in humility. (p.20)
I tend to agree with Dave on all of these things, though I don’t think failing to imagine someone else’s pain is damaging.
I think trying to imagine someone else’s pain would be both foolhardy and pointless. I can sympathize with a person’s pain; I can recognize that they are in pain, but there is no way I can imagine the actual pain that they are feeling.
The problem with empathy is that experience is totally subjective. Even if a substantially similar event happened to me, at the same time that it happened to someone else, it would result in a different sort of pain for each of us. Let’s make it physical pain, for example: For them, it could be the worst thing they’ve ever experienced…where, for me, it might have been a normal weekday roughhousing in the backyard with the guys after school.
We actually had a game where two guys would be on swings, and they would get going pretty fast, then the third kid had to run through them as they tried to punch and kick the third kid. The kid running through the swings was not permitted any offensive action whatsoever, though he was permitted to dodge and block. We called the game, “Spider.” I’m not sure why.
Eventually, it got to the point where we had become so good at dodging…or turning more serious blows into glancing ones…that nobody could even score enough points to win by the time it was time to go home because not everyone had finished their turn as the, “Runner.” The runner is only finished with his turn if he declares that he has had enough or actually gets knocked down.
Eventually, the game was totally abandoned as, “Unlosable,” for a few of us. We briefly tried introducing weapons to the game, but eventually determined that no weapon short of one that might cause permanent injury was even a hindrance. After all, we’d taken kicks directly to the head and remained on our feet. (These were low swings, by the way, so a pretty good percentage of the attempted strikes did connect)
Imagine both myself and another person get punched in the face by the same person…I’ve been here before; I know what it means to be punched in the face and, while less than ideal, it’s usually going to take a lot more than one shot to stop me. Our author was punched in the face (more on that later) and had her nose broken, which I can relate to, but despite my several experiences with being punched in the face, often for fun, I cannot understand her pain other than to know it was almost certainly worse than mine would have been.
If Jamison sat in front of me and told me the story now, long after medical attention is no longer required, I’d probably say, “Damn, that sucks! I’m sorry.”
Would my words ring hollow? Perhaps, but that’s not my fault. If nothing else, at least my words would be something that acting and pretending isn’t—genuine. You can generally want to relate directly to another person’s experience, to see it through their eyes, feel it through their skin, but you never will. Is there nobility in the effort? I guess that depends on whether or not you think the effort is worth making and what empathy means to you.
My masculine brain looks at these sorts of accounts this way:
Internal Question 1: Is there something I can do about it? (If yes, go to 2; if no, to 4)
Internal Question 2: Do I want to do something about it? (If yes, go to 3)
Internal Question 3: What should I do about it and how should I do it?
Internal Question 4: How can I express sympathy without sounding like a total asshole and in a way such that the person knows I do care?
Question #4 is always the hardest one to answer. I much prefer problems that simply require me to do something to rectify them. If there’s something else you need from me, or something that doesn’t really have an answer/solution, then sorry, I know enough to know I have no idea how to give you what you need. It usually ends up being, “Wow. That sucks.”
A CALL TO INACTION
The next chapter involves going to an annual meeting for those who suffer from Morgellons Disease, which may or may not be, ‘Real,’ in the sense that some people would define diseases. Our author doesn’t have this, but this is when we establish that The Empathy Essays are largely going to be about going to one place or another, observing people and then trying to imagine how things are from their perspective: to empathize.
I’m really not going to get into it, but you can read it for yourself.
The following chapter consists of a tour of some of the most dangerous places in Mexico.
Even the description on the back of the book calls this what it is, “Poverty tourism.” There’s another chapter that deals with some bus tour through some of the more dangerous areas in L.A., which I would know exactly nothing about, other than what’s on the news.
All of this, I suppose, in order to try to achieve empathy, I guess?
I would ask: What does this sort of empathy do?
The author acknowledges that these brief trips and tours are a really poor substitute for actually living it, on a day in and day out basis. In a later chapter, wherein she visits someone she met in an earlier chapter in jail, she acknowledges that the questions she asks (and finds the answers fascinating) are just daily life for the man imprisoned.
This is my problem with what I see as the modern notion of empathy: The thought that trying to understand what a person is going through has some sort of great value.
We see, or don’t see, the suffering. Some would suggest, by virtue of factors largely out of our control, that we (meaning certain people from the U.S.) benefit intrinsically, or systematically, from the suffering of others. I suppose that could be true, to greater or lesser extents, but I see little use for the understanding of this if it doesn’t lead to materially doing something about it.
Some would suppose that there is a certain value in, “Being seen,” but those are the same people who would treat the notion of empathy as some sort of altruistic act of charity, even though it materially changes nothing for the person who suffers. Were I starving, I would want a burger; I really don’t care if you are, ‘Seeing,’ me or not. They are often the people who wouldn’t benefit merely from, “Being seen,” because it is them suggesting that there is a value in, “Seeing,” people who have it worse than they do.
Maybe the benefit is in getting to feel like they, ‘See,’ others.
Myself, I think there is a value in seeing them if seeing them is actually going to lead one to doing something about it; at least, when there is something about it to be done. If there’s not, then I see it as no different than buying a ticket to the zoo and lamenting, “I wish they wouldn’t have these animals in cages like that,” but then taking no action that would cause it to be otherwise.
Reach for the stars; wish me a wish, but none of it changes the pragmatic reality that the animals are, in fact, in cages.
(Disclaimer: This is not in any way meant to compare the people in the book to animals. The comparison is simply meant to refer to seeing and commenting without doing.)
THE NICARAGUA INCIDENT
Our author was acting as a teacher in Nicaragua, was walking alone at night and was punched in the face (had her nose broken) and was robbed of money and a camera (that she would have simply given under mere threat of being punched).
I wonder at what point the identification of cause-and-effect becomes, “Blaming the victim,” or are the two things inseparable? There are many different possible responses to being told this tale from another person, and I certainly won’t cover them all, but here are a few that would pop into my mind.
1.) That’s really unfortunate, but it could have been worse.
-Given the context, any number of things could have happened. Our author could have been r**ed, killed or not been able to make it as quickly to friends who were willing to try to help take care of her.
I think that it’s important to understand that a statement, such as this, is not a failure in sympathy–it’s an attempt to be sympathetic in the way we know how. Some people, and I only know because I am one of them, find some level of self-consolation in thinking about the ways that an unfortunate situation could have ended even more unfavorably and saying to ourselves, “Well, at least…didn’t happen.”
Of course, some people are selectively pragmatic, so only caring about what DID happen, at least in instances directly applying to them, might make this attempt at sympathy seem hollow, if not downright callous.
2.) Well, you shouldn’t have been…
-Once upon a time, I might have responded that way, but I now know better. For one thing, the person probably already knows that, or would perhaps do the same thing in the future, thinking it’s more probable than not a similar effect will not repeat.
The big issue is that such a statement is often seen, perhaps rightly, as, “Blaming the victim,” while others would argue that they are simply pointing out that the victim’s chosen actions may have indirectly contributed to their victimhood.
Either way, it’s not helpful. More than that, it obviously doesn’t change anything.
Some people might even see it as giving advice, “Well, if you avoid doing x, y and z in the future, then…” but again, the victim probably already knows that.
If I hadn’t played Spider, I’d have gotten stitches one less time. On one occasion, I was trying to spin out of an attempt to tangle me (there was an overly complicated rule about being, ‘Stopped,’ causing you to no longer be the runner, even if you didn’t go to the ground) staggered through the spider, but ended up careening into a low fence from which one of the loose links gashed my arm open. I still have a faint scar. I did not fall, so I kept playing.
“If you hadn’t been playing Spider, then that wouldn’t have happened.”
If I hadn’t been trying to stand on a swing, on one foot, and with no hands, I might not have fallen and had my lower back impaled by a branch. The value of showing off, to younger show-off me, outweighed safety in that instance, as well. (The sad part was there wouldn’t have been anyone there to see it had I been successful!) I just got up, went home and tried to put a Band-Aid on it. Imagine my mom’s shock when I returned for the second time, later that night, with my shirt soaked with blood! The Band-Aid was…insufficient.
3.) That sucks.
-I suppose that my attempts at sympathy shouldn’t be custom-designed to prevent myself from feeling awkwardness, but acknowledging that something sucks seems to have that side effect. At least it’s indisputable: I don’t think the subject relating the story is going to contest that the event didn’t suck!
The incident stuck in the author’s mind and seems to frame a lot of the writing. There’s also some talk elsewhere about wanting her pain to be, “Her own,” in some ways, but by that metric, attempts at empathy would seem to be wanting to share in the pain of another, despite the fact that a part of you wants your pain all for yourself.
I really have no idea, but that’s just a different way of thinking. I fail to see how my experience, of anything, can belong to, or be shared, by anyone other than myself.
DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES ARE, WELL, DIFFERENT
The description of the author’s emotional process using haughty and poetic terminology, (which I do respect) unfortunately, clarifies exactly nothing to me.
One thing that doesn’t escape my attention is that empathy is only to be conditionally applied, with the condition being the would-be empath has to actually want to apply it.
With that, and I’m not suggesting it’s true of the author, trying to have a deep understanding of someone’s problems that you admit to indirectly benefit from, or lack the ability to do anything about, is supposed to be assumed a worthy goal. However, these same empaths will much more cavalierly dismiss another person as being, “Insensitive,” or, “An asshole.”
It is our own experiences, thoughts, perceptions and ideas that inform how we go about the ever-difficult task of trying to relate to others. I suppose one problem to a society, “Privileged,” is the lack of a truly common struggle.
It also doesn’t escape my attention, particularly in the age of social media, that the easiest way to strike out about gripes that may be fundamentally legitimate is to arouse the mob to attack an individual person. “Cancel culture,” to whatever extent it exists, is born. Naturally, the person tends to be a proxy for those who might, at least in theory, be capable of effectuating a different result.
Perhaps a more useful discussion would be one focused on the different ways that complicated concepts such as, ‘Emotion,’ or, ‘Caring,’ can be expressed. Just because a person’s end goal of achieving perfect empathy is how that person, ‘Tries,’ doesn’t necessarily mean that others are not trying.
THE CALL TO THE VOID
I promised that I would relate this back to an aspect of gambling, and here we are.
The chapter in this book called, “The Immortal Horizon,” is what drew my thoughts to gambling.
In this chapter, there is described a sort of endurance race by which contestants will attempt to run a total of over one hundred total miles, through brambles, mud and up and back down mountains…for no reason. There is a reason, of course, which is simply for the runners to see how much suffering they can take and still keep going.
Our author’s brother ran in this race and she came along as an observer.
I equate this to problem gambling.
It makes me wonder a great many things: Does there exist, in some people, an actual desire for suffering? Do some individuals want to see what the bottom of the void looks like? How bad things can actually get? Is it suffering merely for the sake of suffering, or is it suffering with the goal of seeing how much you can take and finishing the pointless race for which you are rewarded nothing that you didn’t already have?
“It’s just a bloody mouth and I only need five more points to win. I’m not done yet.”
The Call of the Void is better explained here. Most commonly, it can involve an urge to fling oneself off of a building, or a mountain, though the urge might be fleeting. It can also involve such acts as holding a cutting knife and having a sudden urge to slit your wrists, though you quickly write off the urge as you have no desire to commit suicide.
Of course, some might express this not as an urge, but through action. One cannot help but wonder if this isn’t the case in addicts, not just to gambling, but also to drug and alcohol addicts, as well. Perhaps even smokers.
People will go through and repeatedly engage in an action that has predictable consequences. However, for some, perhaps the path to the Void is more of a tentative approach as opposed to a flinging.
Equally, it doesn’t escape my attention that, as their world crumbles down around them, it means that these Void slow-rollers must be feeling something.
Is the element behind it purely self-harm? In some cases, could it not be that they want to feel something that they lack in other activities and, while suffering and despair might be those things, hell, at least they are something?
I’m not a gambling addict, but I am an alcoholic, tobacco-chewer and former smoker. When a smoker, the most common objection to my activity I would hear is, “Those things are going to kill you one day.”
I’d respond, “I’m going to die eventually, either way.”
Could the Call Of The Void come about as a result of some earlier reflection, and recognition, that there is no great meaning to any of this? My conclusion is that there’s really not any great need for things to have inherent meaning, so I find myself untroubled with the lack of any inherent meaning to the Universe, or the notion that all things will come to an end.
I suppose it might not be so easy for some other people. Perhaps addiction, which often involves people, purportedly, not being in control of their actions…really feels a hell of a lot like being in control of your actions. Jamison gets into her former habit of cutting, which I would know nothing about, but makes clear that the cutting put her in control of when she would feel pain and how much of it she would feel.
“I’m not going to allow disaster to befall me without my consent, so I will just actively cause disaster to fall upon my own head. That’ll show you, Universe!”
That’s not meant to be unsympathetic, by the way. Sometimes, people suggest actions to others that would better promote long-term health and they reply with something akin to, “Yeah, even though I could just get hit by a car and get killed tomorrow, anyway.”
We don’t live forever and there is no point, other than whatever point you can create for yourself. Most people balance sub-optimal actions, at least to the extent that the goal is meant to be surviving as long as possible, with actions more inclined to that goal. Others don’t see the point.
Alternatively, some people might feel undeserving of the good fortune they have. Perhaps they think that causing themselves to suffer will balance this, or possibly, don’t understand why they shouldn’t suffer if others must.
Of this I have no doubt: The activity has some sort of goal; I just have no idea what that goal might be. I don’t think they do, either.
Overall, I would recommend The Empathy Exams, because the collection of essays offers a unique look into the subject of empathy and the author’s attempt to better understand and learn how to employ it. I don’t think I would be spoiling anything to say that the author fails to achieve perfect empathy, at least as far as I can tell, but the early part of the book proclaims and defends that there is value just in the trying.
If nothing else, it’s a book that will make you think. It’ll make you ask yourself several questions, some of which, I would assume, were not even necessarily questions the author intended for you to ask.
The stories throughout the book are well-told, though I do warn that many guys (in my opinion) are going to struggle through the poetic emotional soliloquies and emerge with nary an idea of what has actually been said. However, I did understand most of it. I’m sure, even if you don’t understand the author’s sometimes lengthy dives into the way her own mind operates, that the tales told will lead you to ask your own questions, and perhaps arrive at your own conclusions, based on the way you think.
'call of the void' , yeah, a new one for me to think about. I can buy the idea that it can explain what some problem gamblers go through
Thank you for the comment, OdiousGambit! I'm glad someone agrees with me on the potential of that idea.