Wednesday, January 14, 2015

the empathy exams


First book of 2015 was a great one. In my Goodreads review of The Empathy Exams I said that it could be re-named "How to Feel Feelings" so all you hardcore feelers of feelings out there... this one's for you. And all you icy cold robots (my husband) you could learn a thing or two from this one.

The Empathy Exams is a brilliant collection of essays on seemingly unrelated topics like abortion, Mexican narcotics wars, Morgellons Disease and artificial sweeteners and the suffering that takes place within these different situations and settings. Leslie Jamison focuses on how we as individuals feel pain, react to it, how we empathize with one another and ultimately how empathizing makes us better humans. Often, Jamison reflects on her own reactions to things and how they can be appropriate or wildly inappropriate to a particular situation. There's a lot of brutal honesty, embarrassing selfishness and utter helplessness in these pages. There was also a lot of personal reflection for me, and moments when I realized my own naïveté of the world around me and the immense suffering that occurs everyday that I have never and probably will never experience.

That being said, this book is not a downer, but you probably don't believe me now. My favorite kind of writing is that which puts to words feelings and thoughts you have always had but could never verbalize and Leslie Jamison did this over and over again for me. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Empathy isn't just something that happens to us-- a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain-- it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's ask for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I'm deep in my own. To say going through the motions-- this isn't reduction so much as acknowledgment of effort-- the labor, the motions, the dance-- of getting inside another person's state of heart or mind.

A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial-- as if "attention" were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn't wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human-- and isn't granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?

I got through this one quickly and you probably will too. I'll be very surprised if this doesn't make my top 10 by the end of the year. Happy reading! And here's to a new year of new books!!

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