How often do we see friends posting Facebook status updates about bad days at work, sleepless nights, or frustrating interactions with strangers? Or something much worse? How many of us have hit the “Like” button in response, looking for a way to acknowledge suffering, knowing that “Like” is absolutely not the emotion we’d want to convey? Facebook users have long cried out for a “Dislike” button, but the company refuses to provide it. According to Facebook product engineer Bob Baldwin, “Actions on Facebook tend to focus on positive social interactions.” Fair enough.
Maybe it’s time, then, to petition the company for an “Empathize” button. This is what we mean, isn’t it, when we hit that button? “I feel your pain,” we want to say. “I acknowledge it.”
At the heart of Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams (Graywolf, April), is this quest to not only acknowledge but to truly understand other people’s pain. It’s something we could all use some help with, as ultimately—whether Facebook introduces a new button or not—our transient interactions we’ve grown accustomed to via social media don’t come close to scratching the surface of human emotion.
Jamison’s essays turn an analytical eye on a wide variety of subjects, from mundane reality television to the bizarre skin disorder—possibly real, possibly imagined disease—known as Morgellons disease. In these essays we witness Jamison’s search for a deeper understanding of empathy; the more we read, the more we realize how elusive the feeling really is.
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Sometimes, for example, empathy just feels like voyeurism: we don’t feel another’s pain; we simply witness it. Facebook tells us this is enough, but is it? In two separate essays, titled “Pain Tours (I)” and “Pain Tours (II)” and which are themselves collections of mini-essays, Jamison casts us in the role of voyeurs of other people’s pain: visiting the silver mines in Potosí, Bolivia; on a Gang Tour in California; watching a reality television show about addiction. We are viewers at a distance, and though we may see the pain, we don’t really understand it.
There are also times when we try for too much understanding. After learning that her brother was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, Jamison “spent a large portion of each day—pointless, fruitless spans of time—imagining how I would feel if my face was paralyzed too. I stole my brother’s trauma and projected it onto myself like a magic-lantern pattern of light. I obsessed, and told myself this obsession was empathy. But it wasn’t quite. It was more like inpathy.”
Empathy, we learn as these essays unfold, is more than the observing that is afforded to us through Facebook and other social media, yet less than the co-opting of someone else’s pain. The joy of reading Jamison’s collection is to watch her search for this middle ground and never quite find it.
There are points in the collection where Jamison shares her own pain, moving from the role of voyeur to victim. This isn’t any easier, though. In the titular opening essay, for example, she writes, “Part of me has always craved a pain so visible—so irrefutable and physically inescapable—that everyone would have to notice.” The impulse toward a pain that is obvious is one that anyone who has ever posted a painful status update can recognize. It is an impulse that speaks to the problem of empathy: the ways we seek it out, and the ways we no longer know how to express it.
Facebook may still be trying to help us out. According to an article published in December in the Huffington Post, the company was experimenting with a “Sympathize” button that would automatically replace the “Like” button on gloomier status updates. Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, though to “sympathize” is to agree with someone’s feeling, whereas to “empathize” is to share that feeling: the difference, essentially, between understanding someone else’s pain, and actually feeling it yourself. Either way, there’s no new Facebook button yet, but that may be just as well. As long as we are looking for buttons on the internet to express these complex human feelings, we may be missing the point.