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, the 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 acknowledgement of 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 rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intentions 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.
— The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison
…i get on the train and sit across from a girl wearing a dark ponytail and a moonstone ring. bronze colored buttons on her shorts, hand on her heart, tapping, rubbing, concurrently attempting to soothe and provoke. i recognize her immediately, this girl, her hand movements, her eyes, the way she is holding her mouth. she looks to her left and smiles at what she sees on the phone of the person sitting next to her. she forgets her breath and tries to remember it again. she looks back and we make eye contact. i press my palm to my heart and mouth the words are you okay? she smiles and nods, gestures with her hands and mouths the word ‘heartbreak’. i point to my heart and mouth back ‘me too’. she smiles in recognition and i smile with relief and i suddenly sense a thread of light between us and we both begin laughing and crying at the same time. fleetingly feeling into each other’s emotions more than we perhaps could if we were close friends. we wipe our eyes. the train stops. she stands and reaches across, takes my hand into her own. it is warm, reassuring and strong. you’re going to be okay, she says. i wish her a good day and she walks off the train and i cry, cry this time not for my heart or for my ache but with incredulous gratitude at the beautiful reminder that we are in this together and that we are going to be okay and that she knows it to be true.