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The Illusion of Choice

Leslie Jamison’s essay, “The Empathy Exams,” is rooted in her experiences receiving two operations in close succession: an abortion followed by heart surgery. While examining her own trauma, she blends her narrative with those of the fictionalized patients she portrays as a “Medical Actor.” Through this dichotomy, Jamison explores the illusion of choice with respect to human emotions. In particular, she reflects upon society’s complacent handling of emotional dissonance, and how such an attitude leads not only to indifference and apathy, but also the inability to understand our own emotions. When detailing her emotional journey—leading up to and following her abortion—Jamison questions the validity of her feelings, and the role that choice plays in determining her internal pain:

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Mine was the kind of pain that comes without a perpetrator. Everything was happening because of my body or because of a choice I’d made. I needed something from the world I didn’t know how to ask for. I needed people—Dave, a doctor, anyone—to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.

In this passage, Jamison explains she depends on external forces to understand her emotions. But because feelings are instinctual and internal, and often indefinable, this exchange is impossible. She relies upon both her doctors and her partner, Dave, for affirmation. There are no perfect scientific cures for trauma, anxiety, depression, and other illnesses that affect the emotions, and thus patients often rely on ambiguous diagnostic processes to define their condition. Jamison contemplates her lack of autonomy over the choice she is forced to make and laments the inherent inadequacy of this approach.

However, throughout “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison insightfully portrays the role that empathy plays in understanding emotional self-awareness. She asserts that “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us… it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” In conceptualizing empathy as a choice, she argues that “the act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations.” While Jamison describes the illusion of choice that humans face in searching for emotional self-awareness, she also suggests methods for cultivating an empathetic mindset.

The Limits of Language

In her examination of empathy, Jamison addresses the complicated contrast between internal and external emotional expressions. Importantly, her essay reflects upon the different ways in which society treats invisible illnesses because of the great difficulty of translating emotion into language. For example, Jamison illustrates this insufficiency of language when she plays the role of Stephanie, a medical patient who experiences depression and post-traumatic stress after her brother’s death. Because she has seizures, with ostensibly no link to these mental conditions, she is diagnosed with “conversion disorder.” Comparing herself to Stephanie, Jamison highlights her desire for society to understand the unseen emotions that accompany pain and trauma:

Part of me has always craved a pain so visible—so irrefutable and physically inescapable—that everyone would have to notice… Like Stephanie, who didn’t talk about her grief because her seizures were already pronouncing it—slantwise, in a private language, but still—granting it substance and choreography.

By distinguishing between the seen and unseen symptoms of outwardly physical or medical conditions, Jamison points out how words are inadequate tools for expressing emotion. She examines how lack of “social self-confidence” prohibits those with heightened emotional...

(The entire section contains 1139 words.)

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