Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the day I finished reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams we took a trip to a lambing farm. What better way to understand the feelings of others, after all, than to observe the grand drama of life and death played out by a bunch of sheep? Which is what we saw mostly, once we filed out of the van and made the half mile walk to the barn. We paid our admission, then joined the rest of the herd of humans anxious to observe the miracle that is the newborn lamb. And what a miracle it was! Imagine lambs as far as the eye can see, all of whom were knobby-kneed and wobbling. There was the occasional bleating courtesy of the mothers (I actually took an audio recording), but the lambs themselves remained quiet.
One lamb, in particular, remained quiet.
I hadn’t noticed it was stillborn, though this information was whispered to me once we started our trek back to the van. Amid all those miracles (a literal outpouring of lambs!), one miracle quickly turned into a private disaster. But was it really private, I wondered as I buckled my seat belt, just because we human were kept separate behind the glass?
The fact that I did not know what to feel merely confirms much of Jamison’s argument: that empathy does not come naturally or easily. Think about it: How empathetic is it, really, to offer condolences to the survivors of someone who’s passed on? How can a sympathy card ever achieve its aim? And more to the point, why do we rarely go further than a modulated response when we hear of somebody else’s misfortune? We follow protocol, sure, but protocol is not empathy.
But perhaps there is power even in protocol. In her title essay, Jamison writes about serving as a “standardized patient”; that is, an actor describing her maladies for the benefit of burgeoning medical students. She literally adopts a persona and follows a script, all in an effort to test the medical student’s use of protocol. Did they acknowledge her as a human being? Did they voice empathy? By essay’s end, when the playacting turns real—when there are struggles beyond the script—Jamison notes, “Whatever we can’t hold we hang on a hook that will hold it.” Yes. That’s exactly what we do, isn’t it? And when empathy is the product of death, the hook in question often comes in the form of a sympathy card.
Which is perfectly fine, acceptable, and the proper use of protocol. Certainly we have all been the recipients and senders of such cards, and regardless of which end we were on, those cards probably made us feel good.
Of course, I sent no card to the mother sheep, provided her no hook to hang her grief. I had been so overwhelmed by the abundance of fleeced-newborn life, after all, that one death was hardly even a distraction. For me, it was hardly a distraction. But hadn’t the mother sheep—whose tendrils of bloodied umbilical cord still slung from her backside—just watched her world dim indefinably? Hadn’t she just witnessed the thing once inside of her bleat, and then crumble, and then die?
I know what you’re thinking: Who are you, Hollars, to thrust your emotion onto a sheep? I get it. After all, I have watched enough nature documentaries to know that sometimes the antelope falls victim to the lion, that even when the stoic cameraman cuts away, the story is far from finished. For the stillborn lamb in the barn that day, the story is already finished. But not for the mother, who I imagine standing stoically herself—war-torn and ravaged—watching from a distance as the other mothers performed their biological imperatives without complication. Without complication—that is the key.
Have I mentioned the way that barn overflowed with expectant mothers? And not just the barnyard variety. It was as if all the pregnant humans in attendance—my wife included—had made the pilgrimage to get a new perspective, watching intently as those mother sheep birthed without fanfare. Earlier, I wrote of the “miracle” of the births, but if I was to ask a ewe—and she was to respond—I can’t imagine the word “miracle” bleating from her blackened lips. Perhaps it wasn’t a “miracle” for the sheep in question. Perhaps it was merely a Saturday.
Which helps me believe what, exactly? That the stillborn lamb was an equally innocuous experience for the mother sheep? If it’s true, as Jamison writes, that empathy is “realizing no trauma has discrete edges,” then perhaps my inability to map my perceived grief onto the mother sheep is proof of my new understanding on empathy’s limits. I could offer condolences, give that sheep an extra bucket of feed, but probably neither action would heal the wound I do not know she felt.
Ugh. My head is swirling again, and suddenly I find myself feeling too much. Write back soon. Help me make sense of what I think I’m trying to say.