Empathy beyond Therapy

Sigrid Nunez’s fiction inspires the question: What would it mean to make caring for others into an explicitly public priority?

In the climax of Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel, What Are You Going Through, the book’s narrator reluctantly agrees to assist a friend, who has long been battling breast cancer, with euthanasia. The emotional texture of their exchange may surprise, given the gravity of the request: “When I had told her the answer was yes, that I would do whatever she needed me to do to help her die, her relief had been so great that she began sobbing,” the narrator discloses. “Seconds later, she texted again: I promise to make it as much fun as possible.”

What Are You Going Through portrays varied relationships—a life-defining friendship as well as a number of mundane interactions with loose acquaintances—that collectively provoke readers to examine how we listen to others and how we unburden ourselves in turn. The narrator assisting with her friend’s death presents an extreme test case for how one might help another bear their pain, but on a broader level, Sigrid Nunez is clearly concerned about the possibilities of empathy in our contemporary moment. It is not so much our capacity for empathy that worries her, but rather the cultural norms surrounding disclosure. In a recent interview with the LARB Radio Hour podcast, Nunez cites these concerns as grounding What Are You Going Through:

I think it might be harder in our society to listen, and I’m not really sure what the reason for that is, but I will say that I think part of it, I mean a clue, would be that I often hear people say that if you’re going to talk about what you’re going through, that’s what a therapist is for. And people now do like to make that distinction: “This is not for me to hear, I’m your friend, I love you, but really you should be talking about this with your therapist, not with me.” I think that’s a fairly common response. I don’t think it’s such a great response, I really don’t.

Nunez laments that bearing witness to another’s life is no longer understood as the responsibility of a friend, lover, colleague, or teacher, but rather is thought to require professional skill (and thus also compensation). She is right: I too am guilty of trying to establish “boundaries” with my friends and redistribute the extensive “emotional labor” I find myself doing for my students at times.1 Mostly I worry I am not qualified to help. Sometimes I just feel overburdened.

What Are You Going Through makes me rethink my responses, problematizing the sanitized cultural forms allocated for intimacy and disclosure and repositioning witness bearing as a public duty. The novel focuses mainly on the narrator’s relationship with the friend who decides to pursue euthanasia with her assistance. It is through this character that the novel stages its most explicit critique of contemporary therapeutic forms, including journaling, psychotherapy, and support groups. Although these forms offer essential spaces for processing, they encourage us to share with others only when appropriate, modifying experience to fit into specific contexts and genres (otherwise, TMI!).

What Are You Going Through offers up the possibility that, though some forms of boundary setting offer crucial protections—particularly for women and people of color, who tend to perform a disproportionate share of care work in America—others are a way of reinscribing individualism, cloaked as self-care. Reading Nunez in 2021, while watching care systems across the country fail on all fronts, I am struck by the need to rethink how emotional labor and self-care have become confined to a select number of privatized, often financially rarified spheres. What would it mean to make caring for others into an explicitly public priority, enabling disclosures that are spontaneous and free from rigid social conventions?

Echoing themes in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (Nunez wrote a Sontag biography, released in 2014), the narrator’s friend in What Are You Going Through laments that self-care rhetoric requires her to frame her cancer as “a gift, an opportunity for spiritual growth,” while prompts to journal about her experience only make her feel worse. She wants instead to be outside her own mind; she “can’t bear the sound of [her] own voice.” If Sontag’s repertoire condemns the way masculine war imagery turns cancer into a battle and the patient into a “survivor” (rhetoric to which the novel also alludes), Nunez’s novel worries that overly consoling, navel-gazing self-care creates a form of therapeutic solipsism. Specifically, contemporary therapeutic forms cultivate solipsism by privatizing inner experience, training individuals to deal with their pain through a sort of inward retreat. While mainstream therapeutic settings can offer solace, they also tend to come with a prescribed set of social conventions, which can impel a person to discipline or suppress the very emotions they are attempting to process.

Take the form of the support group. For the narrator’s friend, this seems to be one of the most constraining; though the group appears to offer camaraderie, it further isolates members whose stories deviate from the grand narrative (i.e., that loss is always to be grieved and optimism maintained at all costs). When a woman who has been stuck in a bad marriage for years tells her support group that her husband seems relieved, even joyful, that she is passing, the members defend her husband. They suggest that he hopes to “make it easier for the patient” and “keep up her own spirits,” misreading the husband’s motivations. The friend rolls her eyes at this toxic positivity, exclaiming that the group members “could not accept the truth” and so “had to bury it under a load of BS.” The therapeutic forms that are meant to accommodate personal turmoil turn experience into part of a neoliberal self-actualization narrative, in which every struggle becomes a project that can be managed to achieve personal growth.


We Must Heal Each Other

By Liz Bowen

On the flip side, however, the novel also remains ambivalent about unfiltered brutal honesty, which not only shuts down conversation and inhibits community but also feels unsustainable to live by. Even as a young adult, the friend’s daughter refuses to mediate or suppress her hatred for her mother, devastating her by consolidating their estrangement on her deathbed. In another instance, readers learn about the narrator’s ex, an (in)famous climate fatalist, allegedly one of the few to face the “horrific facts,” who rejects his son for deciding to have children. The fatalist’s extremist, dogmatic politics cannot accommodate intentional reproduction. (As if to exemplify his social withdrawal, he refuses to take questions at the end of a public talk.) So, as much as Nunez’s novel disparages the way therapeutic forms constrain honest reflection, it also stresses the importance of knowing when and how to speak. (When listening to the climate fatalist’s talk, the narrator comments, “Given the words, the meaning, the horrific facts, a person would probably imagine some show of emotion. Not these calm, cadenced sentences. Not this dispassionate mask.”) If therapeutic cultural forms cannot do justice to the messiness of experience, excessive candor also limits connection; both prove isolating and solipsistic as they bring about estrangement and withdrawal. So what options remain?

Ultimately, What Are You Going Through is about forging fleeting moments of intimacy, specifically by way of friendship, in the midst of this crushing loneliness. Like the narrator in Nunez’s 2018 National Book Award–winning novel, The Friend (note the title), the narrator of What Are You Going Through excels at bearing witness, intervening in this loneliness epidemic. She offers her interlocutors what Merve Emre describes as an “ethic of attention,” a commitment to “[set] aside both sentimentality and her contempt, try simply to listen; to pay attention; to understand what they are going through.”

One could say that this is what therapists offer their patients, but of course they are paid for it, and Nunez is more interested in exploring how an “ethic of attention” might take shape between friends, casual acquaintances, and even strangers. Whereas the narrator in The Friend reveals little of her interiority to her readers, the narrator in What Are You Going Through shows herself to us, which bestows an ordinariness upon her and prevents readers from overidealizing her listening skills. Witness bearing is neither a mystical nor an ethically pure act; the narrator herself struggles at times with guilt, awkwardness, and boredom. The act is intimate, but not private or planned; she hears people out in bars, building courtyards, and locker rooms. By way of the narrator’s disposition, readers ascertain an alternative to therapeutic forms and to an overly candid #NoFilter ethos.

Still, contexts constrain and shape even the narrator’s conversations. Returning from a visit to her friend, the narrator finds that her Airbnb host hesitates to speak her mind, because she (wrongly) fears the narrator-guest will later complain in an online review: “Depressing host talked too much about dead cat.” Likewise, the narrator cannot share a hug with her personal trainer, due to slightly different liability concerns: “I wish I could give you a hug,” the trainer says when the narrator begins unexpectedly crying. “But we’re not allowed to touch clients anymore,” he continues. “The manager is afraid of a lawsuit or whatever.” The narrator’s gift lies not in transcending these limitations but in preemptively sensing her interlocutors’ emotions and thoughts—their need to disclose—even when social conventions prove inhibitory.

The novel’s narrative form reflects this ability, offering the narrator at times the capacity of omniscience, to somehow travel into the minds of those around her. What she finds often contrasts starkly with what her interlocutor actually ends up sharing. Although entering other people’s consciousnesses is a power conferred on a character by a novelist rather than a realistic possibility for a person, the narrator’s moments of omniscience merely enhance her actual attunement to others, a skill that has been hard won through time, effort, and occasional discomfort.

What would it mean to make caring for others into an explicitly public priority, enabling disclosures that are spontaneous and free from rigid social conventions?

All this is background, though, to the main event of the novel: the friend’s preparations for dying. It is here that the novel elevates friendship as the ultimate foil for therapeutic solipsism, positioning intimate friendship as akin to mutual mind reading. After visiting the friend a few times in the hospital, the narrator returns again to find that the treatment has failed. The friend then asks the narrator to help her die, to assist her with euthanasia. The narrator balks and never fully lets go of her unease, but slowly allows herself to be persuaded. The pair move to a New England coastal home for the friend’s final days, laughing, cooking, reminiscing. Despite the friend’s waning energy and inability to help with household chores, the relationship does not feel unequal; the two share a range of pleasures, and the friend can read the narrator’s mind as much as the narrator reads the friend’s. At some point, the two even stop talking: “It wasn’t that we had nothing more to say to each other but rather that our need for speech kept diminishing. A look, a gesture or touch—sometimes not even that much—and all was understood.”

Reading Nunez in 2021, while witnessing an increase in mental-health distress and inadequate public resources to combat it, I am navigating conflicting impulses. On the one hand, I want to preserve the term “emotional labor,” to make visible the way this workload has dramatically increased, exacerbating historic imbalances that unequally and disproportionately burden women (and, I would add, health-care workers, who show up when COVID-19 regulations prohibit family members from visiting, and the various faculty of color called upon for guidance and mentorship during ongoing national protests for racial justice). The term illuminates the sort of “slack” that these groups pick up in the midst of a growing mental-health crisis and failing support systems—not just therapeutic ones, but government-sponsored material support as well as care networks embedded in resource-depleted community institutions (schools, religious centers, and so on).

On the other hand, What Are You Going Through also makes me want to establish my own set of boundaries—boundaries that help shore up and clarify the way I understand “emotional labor.” Maybe not every instance of emotional support is labor. Maybe the term “emotional labor,” with its connotations of debt and compensation, exemplifies another instance of the neoliberal tendency to turn everything into a transaction or commodity.

Let me be crystal clear: I am not disputing the validity of “emotional labor” as a concept for representing an otherwise invisible workload, falling primarily on marginalized groups. It’s more that I’m not sure how to balance dueling concerns. How to protect and advocate for the marginalized groups performing excessive emotional labor while also pushing against therapeutic culture’s insistence that we privatize and formalize disclosure, confining it to an appropriate outlet?

I am curious, though, about a growing cultural interest in friendship—partly reflected in books such as Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, and in the resurgence of interest in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In many of these texts, the borders around friendship blur; Ferrante’s Lila, for instance, is explicitly struck by bouts of “dissolving margins.” The texts zero in on something capacious and evolving about friendship as a form, very much at odds with therapeutic culture’s individualism, something growing not just out of mutual vulnerability but also out of mutual delight, even pleasure. As the narrator of What Are You Going Through learns, all sorts of pleasures, even those typically reserved for romance, can be found within friendship. One day while reading with her near-death friend, the narrator turns a page and the friend leans in and kisses her. The narrator “laughed, startled, then kissed her back”—this, too, can be friendship. icon

  1. “Emotional labor” is a term whose meaning has been somewhat diluted by its widespread use. In its original formulation, it describes “the work of managing one’s own emotions that was required by certain professions.” In this essay I consider its contemporary usage, to refer to practices of emotional support, conflict management, or de-escalation that place an invisible but not insignificant mental and emotional burden on the practitioner.
Featured image: Conversation (2010). Photograph by Astrid Westvang / Flickr