Someone asked me recently at a public forum if empathy has been diminishing among nurses (and nursing students). Excellent question. In my answer, I pointed out that empathy is being sorely tried and spread quite thin in our country currently. That goes for everyone, including nurses and physicians, and students and teachers. And writers.
The question was in response to my reading of excerpts of my essay “Walk in My Shoes” included in my recently published book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Fransisco: The University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2018). In “Walk in My Shoes” I explore empathy, including if it is always a good thing. Empathy is “feeling with” as opposed to the more distancing “feeling for” of sympathy.
We all tend to be more empathetic to people who are similar to us. Climbing the socioeconomic ladder can diminish our empathy for people less well off than ourselves. It becomes easier to blame the poor and the homeless for their situations. Experiencing our own significant traumas can make us more empathetic to people who have experienced similar traumas—but only if we have had the resources to heal sufficiently.
In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison describes empathy as “a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze here?” p. 6
I like this description because it includes the cognitive dissonance, the discomforting disorientation—and humility—that come with travel and with empathy as travel. It also highlights the healthy curiosity required of successful travel, successful empathy. Empathy takes work to gain and to maintain.
Empathy cannot be taught but it can be modeled and it can be nurtured.