narrative medicine

the word / empathy

“Save the word
empathy, sweetheart,
for your freshman essays.
Doesn’t it make
A rather large claim?
Think you can
syphon yourself
into another human
as, in the movie,
the lively boy-ghosts
pour themselves
down the ear-holes
of pompous older men?
Don’t try it. Only
Jesus could do it and he
probably didn’t exist.
Try `sympathy.’ With that
your isolated self may
split a cloak with a beggar,
slip a pillow under the head
of the arrested man, hold tight
the snag-toothed hustler with red hair.”

-Thom Gunn, Boss Cupid

Empathy is such a confused word.  It gets thrown around a lot in medicine (especially narrative medicine, which is supposed to teach us how to hug better*) without any real definition. In first year, we were taught to say things like “I imagine this must be difficult for you,” and we all rolled our eyes at the fakeness of it. Nothing like a health literacy lecturer telling you to compare the urethra to a piece of spaghetti to make you cynical and jaded before you’ve even hit the wards.

Which is why Thom Gunn’s deliciously dry poem works so well — it strips away the sentimentality associated with sickness/healing and gets at what matters.  Not the words, but the actions of the “isolated self.” It’s like Levinas: one person may approach the other, converse with the other, have an ethical responsibility to the other, but one person cannot glomp up the other’s experience, like phagocytosis. (I suspect ol’ Emmanuel put it differently….)

* Real quote, from a skeptic! Love skeptics; I just wasted an hour designing a program T-shirt that says “Narrative Medicine: Hugging people better since 2011.”


2 thoughts on “the word / empathy

    1. Ha! That’s a really odd — I haven’t thought about Boss Tweed (consciously) in a decade. Guess my American History teacher taught me more than I realized.

      Thanks for catching my slip!

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