|—||A much needed reminder from E. Lockhart|
Happy EMPATHY EXAMS day! You’re all going out right now to buy this book, right?
Especially because you know I write a “why you MUST read this book” post about once a decade, so you know this is serious.
And that you must.
How do I explain THE EMPATHY EXAMS?
A long time ago, back when I used to actually write blog posts (and I think this is so long ago that I used to post them on my livejournal), I started a post that I never got around to finishing, because I am lazy, and because talking about things you love is hard, especially when you’re talking about writing that’s so good it makes you want to set your laptop on fire. I wrote (and bear with me, because this gets relevant):
"Here’s the thing about David Foster Wallace’s essays. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and when I do, it’s usually to educate myself on a topic I find interesting. When I’m in the mood for…well, I hesitate to call it spiritual enlightenment, since anyone who knows me knows this is a phrase I would never, ever use, so let’s say illumination, I turn to novels.
But that’s what DFW’s nonfiction writing does for me: illuminate.
Some of his essays just make me think. Hard.
But occasionally he writes something that, at least for the duration of my reading, changes everything I see and understand about the world.
Here’s something else I hesitate to say, because under normal circumstances these are really not words you would ever catch me using, but occasionally he writes something that, at least for the duration of my reading, makes me feel like a better person.
Or like I have the capacity to be a better person (not to mention a better writer).”
Just to be clear, Leslie Jamison is nothing like David Foster Wallace in any way—except for the fact that her writing does exactly the same thing. The fact that her essays are also beautifully brilliant interrogations of what it means to be human, and I love them with the same evangelical zeal. (Obviously.) Not since I picked up that first DFW essay collection have I felt the same kick in the gut, reverberation in my bones, glowing in my heart, whatever you want to call it (and here’s where I wish I could call in Leslie Jamison to get her to explicate the emotion, because that’s what she does best).*
So I’ll let her speak for herself. From the title essay (which you can read in full here, and I dare you to do so and not fall in love):
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 asked 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 the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
That last line, I believe in that, too. And I think reading books like this is as good as any a place to start.
*Disclosure: I actually could call Leslie, because I know her. Which I say less to admit any kind of potential bias and more just to brag, because seriously, how cool is it that I know someone who can write and think like THIS?
|—||John Banville, interviewed here|
|—||from the essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” in THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison. (via readandbreathe)|
|—||Elizabeth Gilbert, in this excellent essay about writerly self-loathing.|
And the thing I learned…is that I had forgotten what a poisonous cancer “nice” can be. That we’re socialized — tortured — into this borderline personality disorder, as a culture, that says everything is all good or all bad, and that if you’re not nice you’re a bitch, but then the definition of “nice” keeps expanding and expanding until it includes ever doing anything that someone else doesn’t agree with, it includes having opinions, having a voice, it eventually includes knowing and trusting yourself. To be nice is to apologize for existing….What I still have to keep reminding myself every day…is that “nice” and “kind” are such different concepts that they may as well be opposites.
You think they’re synonyms and you act like they’re synonyms, but the truth is that one turns outward, into the world as a positive force, and one turns inward, as a self-injury. As a dampening of the light. And I still sometimes have to get this basic on myself when I’m making choices: Am I being Nice, or am I being Kind? Because I think I am a very kind person, a compassionate person, but I wouldn’t — and I don’t think anyone who’s ever met me would — ever call me Nice.
|—||Jacob at Television Without Pity, who frequently turns his tv recaps into ridiculously wise textbooks on How To Be.|
This is around the time I get jealous of everyone posting their best of 2013 lists and resolve to make one myself, and probably sometime over the next week while the world is drowning itself in eggnog and I’m watching my thousandth straight hour of Netflix, I’ll get around to that, but in the meantime, I have discovered the book that sums up my own personal experience of this past year and am revealing it here for the record:
If you somehow managed to miss this in your elementary school years, here’s a snippet:
Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the plane
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute…
You get the idea. The good news is that though I can’t remember for sure, I think it had a happy ending.
well fuck me gently with a chainsaw i just started reading The Waking Dark by robin wasserman and i can already tell THIS IS GOING TO BE AWESOME