Empathy is the ability to comprehend what another person is feeling, and it is the basis for morality and ethics. If humans were not able to imagine what other people feel and be able to anecdotally put themselves in similar situations, there would be no humanity. Still, we are not born with empathy, and it is something that develops and differs among each person. William Carlos Williams wrote two stories that surround empathy during childhood illness and the dynamic relationships between family members and physicians during those times. Both stories reveal that during childhood illness, children have no empathy, parents have too much empathy, and physicians have purposeful empathy that they must place upon those who need it.
Expectedly, children have no empathy when it comes to being sick or witnessing others who are sick. In “The Use of Force,” a child refuses to let the doctor examine inside her mouth. As the physician proceeds, “Both her hands clawed instinctively for my eyes” (Williams, n.d.b). The physician recognizes that the child has no regard for him or his family and is acting purely out of her self-interest. The parents plead with her and are embarrassed that she won’t let the doctor look, but the doctor understands the futility in their pleas as he notes, “But that’s nothing to her” (Williams, n.d.b). She does not even care if she dies so long as she gets her way. Even when she is defeated, she attacks the doctor and cries “tears of defeat” (Williams, n.d.b). Reason, logic and empathy are absent, and the child is simply throwing a fit because she was made to do something that she did want even though it could save her life, make her parents happy, and make the doctor’s job easier.
In “The Girl with the Pimply Face,” Williams writes of a baby who has fallen ill, but the lack of empathy is revealed in her teenage sister who seems to care more about her acne than the life of her sibling. When the doctor asks how her baby sister is doing, the girl says, “I dunno…as indifferent as though it had been no relative of hers” (Williams, n.d.a). Later, the doctor tells the mother that the baby has an incurable heart problem, and he says this in front of the teenage sister. She only says, “How about that stuff for my face you were gonna give me” (Williams, n.d.a). She does not care that her mother is upset nor that her sister may die as long as she gets her acne cream. Although the level of empathy is glaringly absent in Williams’ second tale, both stories similarly reveal the fact that children are simply less capable of empathy than adults.
Adults on the other hand, can have too much empathy when it comes to their children. The parents in “The Use of Force,” actually hinder the doctor’s progress with the girl when they try to reassure her that the doc will not hurt her. The doctors thoughts are, “If only they wouldn’t use the word “hurt” I might be able to get somewhere” (Williams, n.d.b). The parents are also very empathetic toward the doctor when the girl tries to claw at the doctor. “Both the mother and father almost turned themselves inside out in embarrassment and apology” (Williams, n.d.b). In the second story, the mother cries and, despite the language barrier, cannot bring herself to listen to the doctor. She similarly empathizes too much with the doctor, repeatedly insisting that she will pay. Even as he is leaving, the mother shouts at him, “Doctor…You comeback. I pay you” (Williams, n.d.a). In both stories, the parents are worried about how the doctor feels or what he will think, and they are so concerned about how their babies will heal that they cannot see how much they are impeding progress.
The doctor is responsible for ensuring that progress continues, and in both cases, the physician admires the selfishness of the child and abhors the crippling empathy of the parents. In “The Use of Force,” the doctor claims, “I had already fallen in love with the savage brat” (Williams, n.d.b). He understands that the child will be obstinate because she is a child, and he empathizes with her. However, he does not empathize with the parents. After they call the doctor a “nice man,” the doctor scolds them and explains, “For heaven’s sake… Don’t call me a nice man to her” (Williams, n.d.b). He further explains, “The parents were contemptible to me” Williams, n.d.b). He does not empathize with the parents because they are not his priority, and since they keep hindering his care, he has negative emotions toward them. In “The Girl with the Pimply Face,” the doctor again feels much better about the children than the parents. When he meets the teenager for the first time, he notes, “There was that hard, straight thing about her that in itself gives an impression of excellence” (Williams, n.d.a). He eventually figures he won’t be able to help the baby in the long-term, but he knows he can help the girl by helping her with her skin. The mother does not speak English, and the dad is rarely present, and the doctor finds the mother’s empathy to be a hindrance. He has to place his empathy where it counts, and that turns out to be on the child who will live.
In Williams’ stories, children lack empathy, parents have too much empathy, and the doctors’ empathy is utilized with the children. In “The Use of Force,” this is fairly straight forward, but in “The Girl with the Pimply Face,” there is a subplot about whether the parents are scamming the doctor. In any case, Williams’ differing levels of empathy in his characters fit their developmental life stages and career positions. In the medical profession, it is important to remember how empathy can impact the treatment of patients and their loved ones, and this can be used to aid the ethical decision-making process.