the semicolon project


FullSizeRender-1FullSizeRender Today I went to a tattoo artist, and for $60 I let a man with a giant Jesus-tattoo on his head ink a semi-colon onto my wrist where it will stay until the day I die. By now, enough people have started asking questions that it made sense for me to start talking, and talking about things that aren’t particularly easy.

We’ll start here: a semi-colon is a place in a sentence where the author has the decision to stop with a period, but chooses not to. A semi-colon is a reminder to pause and then keep going. 

In April I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. By the beginning of May I was popping anti-depressents every morning with a breakfast I could barely stomach. In June, I had to leave a job I’d wanted since I first set foot on this campus as an incoming freshmen because of my mental…

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The Empathy Exams: Jamison, Wallace, and Positive Vulnerability

In her essay, “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” Leslie Jamison concludes by referencing David Foster Wallace’s search for sentimentality in his writing. The connection is not only interesting in terms of her argument, but it is also quite valid. In fact, Leslie Jamison and David Foster Wallace are very similar; they both bleed on the page. Reading Wallace is like reading a mystery novel while knowing the ending. Although he is usually (but not always) subtle about his own pain, it bleeds through to the page. We feel his pain, and we take it on ourselves.

Leslie Jamison and The Empathy Exams are unique, but have a number of similarities to her predecessor. Although throughout her essays she is very open about her own experiences and pain, it is in her moments of vulnerable pondering that she truly becomes the new Wallace. Both writers share a need to find substance in their words, to find the sentiment in their lives. There is something very painful in this. But it is incredibly powerful.

The Empathy Exams is a collection of essays that explores how we as humans truly connect and support one another. These pieces range in topics, including questions of medicine to poverty, but they hinge upon an uncomfortable question: Can we accept another’s pain as our own? 

Jamison’s two essays, “The Empathy Exams” and “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” offer an interesting (and possibly troubling) distinction. “The Empathy Exams” states that empathy is not only a feeling, but also a conscious action to be vulnerable, to let ourselves truly understand the pain that another is feeling. This is noble, something everyone should follow. However, “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” complicates this narrative, as it studies our fear and resentment of sentimentality. In a realistic perspective, we view sentimentality as a weakness, a defect that clouds logical judgment. Jamison explains that she herself attempted to hide her sentimentally and create characters that were hardened to the world. And although she refuses this, it leaves an uncomfortable undertone. We should not let ourselves be vulnerable. We should be hardened to the world.

An Anecdote­­­­––An all male high school is a temple of machismo (As an alumni of an all male high school, I can attest to this). One may be surprised at the amount of affection that male students may have for one another. But in fact, it is common for men to freely give hugs, put one’s arm around another when in a relaxed state, and even the occasional slap on the behind. In a physical sense, these all male environments are amiable and friendly.

That isn’t to say that during a game of baseball in gym class the athletic students won’t hit the ball directly at those who can’t catch worth a damn. There is a fine distinction between amicability and empathy in the same way that one may choose to give an acquaintance a quick hug but not divulge his or her entire life story with no problem. On the surface, the students at an all male high school are friendly, but they know to keep their embarrassing or painful secrets just that (I once again am referencing my own high school environment). Much like the kid with baseball deficiencies, one cannot be sure that their openness will be met with empathy, or abuse.

Leslie Jamison understands that we are most vulnerable when we are empathetic and open with one another. For a teenage boy in an environment of only teenage boys, it is extremely difficult to openly share because it connotes weakness. In a similar way, being empathetic to another’s pain would involve feeling it, putting oneself in that position, and taking that pain on for oneself. To a teenage boy, this is weakness too.

This scenario directly highlights a societal reality. While I can’t say that we as a society are at the same level of “survival-of-the-fittest” of an all male high school, the undertones remain the same. In her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” Jamison expresses her own shame of being overly sentimental and emotional because she viewed it as weakness.

I would argue that as a collective, we are stuck on a very fragile scale between empathy and the negative sense of sensitivity. For example, we applaud the idea of the hero, someone who comes to the aid for others because he or she has a duty for the lives of others. We view the professions of doctors, police officers, and firemen highly because their responsibilities are closely tied to empathy: to uphold another’s dignity, to preserve lives.

But to be truly empathetic, at least in a strict sense, we must truly allow ourselves take on someone else’s pain and truly understand another’s position and background. This is why much training for taser and tear gas courses (at least at one time or instance) requires that trainee be subjected to it. In order to wield the power, a person must know the pain it can inflict upon another.

As a collective, I don’t think we want 100% empathy all the time. We don’t want to think that the man who just saved a baby from a burning building is a raging alcoholic. Knowing this would require that we ourselves make a choice: to actively make the choice to be empathetic or not. To be empathetic to that alcoholic hero is the conscious choice to care fully about his pain and his struggle, and not just his achievements.

But no, we don’t want to know the dark side of our hero. We just want the feel good story.

So our alcoholic hero will receive the praise and be perceived as invincible. We will continue to live our lives remembering (but actually probably quickly forgetting) that nice story. And our hero will go to his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The somewhat redeeming thing about this is that he can be in an environment where people will support him because they have experienced the same thing and therefore are empathetic. But to the rest of the world, sharing this part of himself is a risky choice to be vulnerable.

This is a pretty depressing way to view the world. However, it is the reason we do not share our secrets to people we just meet. It is also the reason we choose carefully who we get close to, and why it is so painful when that trust is broken.

Leslie Jamison directly addresses her own fears of over-sentimentality. Jamison explains how in fear of coming across as overly sentimental, she created characters in her fiction that were incredibly cold and unlikeable.

Jamison indirectly states that she fell into what David Foster Wallace would describe as the trap of postmodernism, or literature and society’s recent tendency to towards irony and coldness as opposed to sentimentality. Throughout his writing career, Wallace attempted to expose the dangers of irony and find a way to return to emotional, connected, and empathetic messaging (“This is Water” is a call to never become cold to the world).

David Foster Wallace begins “The Depressed Person,” like this:

“The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror,”

Brief Interview With Hideous Men pg 37

To be very simple, Wallace recognized our fear of sentimentality/vulnerability and our desire for empathy. And he recognized that it is slowly strangling us. It’s one of his most common and powerful themes.

I think this is why I was so drawn to The Empathy Exams. Jamison understands, just like Wallace understood, that we crave empathy but many times cannot achieve it. In light of this, we need to be constantly reminded, no matter how uncomfortable or painful it may be. Our empathy lies in our ability to be vulnerable, and our ability to be vulnerable lies in seeing it in action. Leslie Jamison necessarily takes up Wallace’s mantle on this. And in The Empathy Exams, she achieves something that few have been able to achieve. True empathy.

A Musing on Who we Choose to Share Ourselves With

An article by Michael Welch in The Odyssey Magazine 

As a member of Orientation Staff last summer, one of my responsibilities was to teach my group of incoming freshmen about how to succeed in college. In one of our activities, I had to read to them a number of statements, which they would respond by “stepping over the line.” Have you ever been depressed? If yes, step over the line. Have you ever had too much to drink? Step over the line. Read More.

Sadness, Weariness, and Laughter: An Ancient Latin Poem on Occasion of Mental Health Awareness Week 2015

The Petrified Muse

Between 11-17 May 2015 it is Mental Health Awareness Week, when the Mental Health Foundation, like every year, helps to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues.

Mental health is hard to define. On their webpages, the Mental Health Foundation suggests that that –

‘If you’re in good mental health, you can:
• Make the most of your potential
• Cope with life
• Play a full part in your family, workplace, community and among friends’

On this occasion, I would like to introduce my readership to a most remarkable Latin poem, which was composed in the fifth century A. D.

Originally inscribed, the poem largely survived through a manuscript tradition – only small fragments of it were rediscovered in the Rome’s Basilica of the Apostles (which impressively proved, however, just how many mistakes a manuscript transmission can introduce even in a comparatively short text).

Based on…

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A Young Student Athlete’s Depression, Hidden on Social Media


The day after Madison jumped, Jim walked to the top of the parking garage. He read the phrase, She had wings on. He spoke with Madison’s friends. He compiled clues.

Then he stopped. He could spend his life trying, in vain, to make his child whole again, he thought. Or he could work to keep others from breaking apart.

The Hollerans are trying now to deliver a new message: It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to show people you’re not OK.

Kate Fagan, at ESPN, on Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania student who committed suicide in 2014 at the age of 19.

Read the story

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I’m Only Trying to Help: Whiplash and the Line Between Mentor and Addictive Abuse



Whiplash is a film that studies the difference between the mentor/student relationship and emotional abuse in pursuit of success. The main character, Andrew Neiman, is a student at a prestigious music school who dreams of being a famous drummer. When he is handpicked by the best conductor at the school, Terence Fletcher, he believes that he will be able to achieve his dreams. But Fletcher’s harsh and abusive teaching behavior nearly breaks Neiman (or perhaps it actually does). J.K. Simmons recently won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his role as Terence Fletcher. His performance and character reaches downright uncomfortable levels throughout the film, and in the end we are meant to wonder the true nature of the mentor. Is it an admirable role, or something more mentally complex?

The film’s trailer presents Terence Fletcher’s leading ideal that “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” He believes that the key to mentoring is to never leave the student satisfied, that there is always the next level that they can reach. By telling someone good job, it removes him or her of responsibility of missteps. As one of the later scenes highlights, Fletcher believes that it is his responsibility to find and cultivate the next jazz icon, and by mentoring softly he is robbing the world of music.

Is this admirable? Perhaps. We are constantly flooded by success stories where an athlete or musician or writer tells us that the or she beat the odds through sheer hard work and passion. In fact, it sounds cliché when written down. Andrew Neiman of Whiplash has this desire and passion, as he is willing to push himself past bleeding hands, emotional torture, and even physical accidents, with the idea in mind that he can become one of the greats. And if the film were to show Neiman as a success years in the future, he would most likely tell this story of perseverance and drive.

But there is a dark side to this narrative. Behind the story of success is the pain that is attributed to it, and most times the mentor who stands behind the star. And while it may be argued that Whiplash presents an over-dramatized version of this mentor and student relationship, it also shows what happens when that desire to succeed becomes tainted. In the film, one of Fletcher’s former students, who despite achieving success after college, commits suicide after suffering from panic attacks and depression. It is directly stated the Fletcher’s overbearing and torturous nature led him to his death.

But these are the stories that we don’t tell. We don’t hear about people who choose mental health over success or the ones who break themselves in the pursuit of it. Andrew Neiman is caught in the uncomfortable in between of this dilemma, as he is willing to push himself through Fletcher’s abuse and even physical harm. As an audience we cry for him to give up, to choose health over his drive. But if we were only to see him as a success years down the line, we wouldn’t care about his story of struggle.

Perhaps what is most ambiguous and ultimately troubling, however, is the portrayal of the mentor. The Atlantic released an article that expressed the frustration of many critics, who saw the character of Terence Fletcher as a one-dimensional and even cartoonish antagonist. In fact, many viewers refuse to believe in Fletcher’s complexity because they only see the man who is willing to destroy anyone in his path in his pursuit to create artists.

In fact, the film’s conclusion presents the most unsettling realization for viewers. During a large concert, Fletcher gives Neiman the wrong sheet music in an attempt to embarrass and ultimately destroy his music career. And although Neiman stumbles from this betrayal, he ultimately comes back with a dazzling performance that beats his mentor and establishes himself as a rising star. As viewers we are meant to be happy with this, but in fact we are mostly left unsure. Years later we will only hear of the success that night, but not of the fact that Fletcher was willing to destroy a student for revenge. But of course, no one will see that in the future. They will see the mentor and the star.

I believe, however, that there is more to this relationship. The mentor and student relationship lies in what I have described as a passion and drive to succeed. And while this is not always a negative thing, it does open up the possibility for negative consequences. It is passion and drive that ultimately draws a student towards his mentor, as it does for Andrew Neiman. But in Whiplash, we don’t truly see the draw for the mentor. We do hear Fletcher’s motto to create artists, but not much more.

I argue that a mentor and more specifically Fletcher’s desire to mentor, whether it be a positive or negative form of mentorship, is driven by a similar narrative of success. But it is not merely a drive for the student to succeed. However, by the student achieving success, the mentor finds success for himself. Fletcher does not want to create artists for the utilitarian end goal of a flourishing jazz industry. It is instead a selfish desire. We cannot view the mentor and student relationship as one where the mentor gives his knowledge out of selfless love, but instead of a business relationship where each participant receives compensation.

But it is this symbiotic partnership that ultimately creates the opportunity for abuse. With our American view of success, we both crave and feed these mentor and student relationships, and ultimately allow them to become a negative influence rather than a positive one. What we define as success has become so high that we will even permit abuse in order to achieve our ends. Both Fletcher and Neiman buy into this idea, and many others in real life do as well. But with this idea of success, we will only continue to allow mentorship to become abuse.