"I had tried many times over the years to read Moby Dick, but it never took. One night, I couldn’t sleep and I went into my husband’s office and looked for a boring book to put me to sleep. Oh, there’s Moby Dick, I thought. That’ll do the trick. Five chapters later, I was wide awake and practically shouting with pleasure. What had I ever been thinking? It is the most astonishing, idiosyncratic, encyclopedic, beautifully written, sprawling and endlessly fascinating book I’ve ever read."
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 the 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 arise 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."
— Leslie Jamison, “The Empathy Exams” (via The Believer)
Dara Wier, You Good Thing (2013)—When I read this I pictured winter on scrubby fields in the county where my family used to live; outside, and wind; cracks of pepper. Perfect.
Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening (2006)—My boyfriend, whose father emigrated from Iran just before the revolution, gave me this book for Christmas. I ate it in one day, February 3. Ebadi is, first of all, a fucking awesome woman, and second of all, somehow gives both overview and nuance to a situation I never had a clear picture of. Highly recommended.
"That once was, the tattoo says, and the memory remains, even as it becomes strange."
"You are the only one of you, she said of it. Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original, she said dismissively. Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. You writing it makes it possible."