Guilt always sounded wrong—like I was trying to apologize for what had happened, or say that my status…somehow justified it—when I wasn’t trying to excuse anything, only to speak a feeling of culpability tangled with the other kinds of residue inside me: anger, fear, an obsessive tendency to check the mirror for signs that my parts were slipping out of place. I began graduate school and started writing papers about the practice of rereading. I read Propp. I looked back at my own life like text.

– From The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

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 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 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.

– From The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

I spent large portions 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. I wasn’t expatriating myself into another life so much as importing its problems into my own.

– From The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

Guessing your feelings is like charming a cobra with a stethoscope, a boyfriend told me once. Meaning what? Meaning that pain turned me venomous, that diagnosing me required a specialised kind of enchantment, that I flaunted feelings and withheld their origins at once.

– From The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

I heard making this up as an accusation that I was inventing emotions I didn’t have, but I think he was suggesting I’d mistranslated emotions that were already there – attaching long-standing feelings of need and insecurity to the particular event of this abortion; exaggerating what I felt in order to manipulate him into feeling bad. This accusation hurt not because it was entirely wrong but because it was partially right, and because it was leveled with such coldness. He was offering insight in order to defend himself, not to make me feel better.

– From The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison