It was at university that I first encountered the term empathy. I had been practising it—as much as any adolescent practises empathy— I just hadn’t known what it was called before then. My lecturers described empathy as the act of imagining what it was like to be in another person’s situation. They said it was distinct from sympathy, which implied a shared experience and therefore a deeper level of understanding. They discouraged us from using phrases with patients like ‘I know how you must feel’ because, more often than not, as young medical students, we didn’t. Instead, they coached us to say things along the lines of, ‘I imagine that must be hard for you.’ They told us to lean in, and nod, and place a box of tissues at the patient’s elbow.
Ten years later, I was teaching medical students communication skills at university. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that empathy training had grown more sophisticated. In tutorials, with the help of paid actors, we role-played breaking bad news to patients. As I observed the students, it struck me that empathy is a talent. Some people have it. Some people don’t. The medical education literature is rich with articles asking whether empathy can be taught. Many think it cannot. German phenomenologist, Edith Stein, believes it can be facilitated.
I feel very lucky to have a job as a general practitioner because I am constantly having my assumptions and prejudices challenged. I no longer think that old people don’t have sex, or that Muslim people never drink alcohol, or that everyone who uses ice is dangerous and scary. But not everyone has a job that serves this purpose. For those who work from home or in an office and only socialise with people like them, they may rely on having their prejudices challenged through reading. And not newsfeeds that reward sensationalism and simple narratives, but stories that focus on the plights of individuals—books that deal with nuance and detail and complexity. As mentioned in my previous post, British author Malorie Blackman claims reading is ‘an exercise in empathy.' In a similar vein, acclaimed writer George Saunders recently stressed the importance of artists and journalists writing stories that facilitate empathy.
Fiction has always struck me as being something rather magical. I think back to the times that I cried or laughed while reading a novel. How amazing, I think, that I was crying and laughing about people who don’t exist. Imaginary characters. I marvel at the fact that I devoted time to these non-existent people, that I spent precious hours trying to understand them better. No doubt you have had this experience too. Surely if we can do that for imaginary characters, then we can do the same for our neighbour, or our work colleague, or the stranger who votes for a different political party? And yet, on social media, we are quick to put people in a box. We demonise each other. In the Vox interview, George Saunders talked about his late friend David Foster Wallace. Wallace asserted that human beings are addicted to outrage. After spending time with a right-wing radio host, he concluded that Fox News and other stations like it traded in a currency of agitation energy. There is, unfortunately, something exhilarating about anger and hatred. Right now, for instance, I’m sure certain people on social media would label me a bleeding heart. Funnily enough, that is one slur I don’t mind being called. As a writer and a GP who regularly trades in empathy, there is nothing I’d rather be.
Melanie Cheng is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Melbourne. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland, Sleepers Almanac and Seizure, among other publications, and her story, 'White Sparrow', was published in Shibboleth and other stories, published by Margaret River Press. In 2016 she won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript for her collection of short fiction, Australia Day, to be published in 2017 by Text Publishing.