Words Carrying Stories

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Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “alphabet in the ball” by Vlado.

Recently looked into my old blog again, and found this post on the origins of language: 

Last year I took a trip to St. Mary’s City, the original capital city of Maryland. It’s a great place where re-enactors dress up as 17th century Marylanders, living as they did when St. Mary’s was the hub of activity in colonial Maryland.  One of the main attractions, besides the Indian village and the Maryland Dove, the merchant ship at St. Mary’s dock, was the printer’s house, where the town’s newspaper was printed. The volunteer there showed us how the printer’s letter blocks were set in two cases – capital letters in the upper case, and non-capital letters in the lower case. This is the origin of the words uppercase and lowercase in English. We no longer see the “case” in our mind’s eye, but it was there once. Countless words grew out of physical realities we have long forgotten. We don’t think of newspaper correspondents as writing letters, but in the nineteenth century, that’s exactly what they did. The famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” came from a letter written to the New York Herald by its correspondent in Africa, Mr. Henry Stanley. His newspaper reports from Central Africa were introduced with the following telegram from the London correspondent in July of 1872: “It is with the deepest emotions of pride and pleasure that I announce the arrival this day of letters from Mr. Stanley, Chief of the Herald Exploring Expedition to Central Africa. I have forwarded the letters by mail.” Sometimes it’s nice to realize how much language tells stories, down into the words themselves.

Well, that last year I referred to is a long time ago now, but it’s funny how much all of these old entries still speak to me. The way words wrap up history and culture inside them has always been a fascination. Letters, too, have histories. For example, the letter z was imported into English from French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and the name “zed” – used in Britain to describe the letter – is thought to come from the Hebrew word for weapon, because the letter shape: ז looks like a weapon. Interesting, isn’t it? 

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Empathy

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Courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net, Tree Silhouette On Book by KROMKRATHOG

Last week after my post “a single word” I got the most wonderful comment, asking me to explore how much people need connection and how to develop empathy in people who don’t have enough of it. It all came from the power of the word “alone” which evoked such a response in the kids I was talking to.

We human beings need each other. That’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That word – alone — evokes so much pain when we think of someone left behind, unable to find comfort and company. And yet it’s true, for all we want other people, sometimes we don’t understand them very much. It would be nice if everyone grew up in a loving family, with friends and neighbors who shared the ups and downs of life with them. After all, we’re communal creatures, and even our smiles are contagious to each other. 

Of course, the strong social networks that seem to produce healthier people are not a given for too many, and so we have this problem of alone. Other words figure in too – alienated, selfish, cold, angry.

Judging from all the studies going on, I know there are quite a few brilliant people working on all sorts of levels to counter this kind of painful disconnection. My small part is to write stories. I’ve always believed that stories are one of the best ways to teach empathy. By their very nature, stories make you live someone else’s reality. Recently, science has even begun to back this idea up — the most fascinating studies have been done to show that, when reading a good novel, a person’s brain reacts as though he or she were experiencing the events. Even more, reading literary fiction has been shown to actually teach empathy, because the characters are psychologically complex and the reader becomes a partner in imagining their internal realities. 

In that class last week, talking to the third graders about stories, I asked them what stories were for. The answer that came out of all the detailed responses was basic and profound: stories make us feel things and know things. They let us step outside ourselves into someone else. So my personal response to the question of how to build empathy in other people is first the most basic: reach out to them, welcome them, offer them kindness and aid, so they know what that feels like. (As both a parent and a teacher, I have always been a huge fan of modeling.) And then, dig down into life, think about the intricate world that is each human being, and write it down.

Tell stories. 

A Single Word

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courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “Live and Dead Trees” by njaj.

Sometimes an entire idea pivots on a single word. A part of me has always known this theoretically, but I got an object lesson in it yesterday, when speaking to a class of third graders in New York. We were talking about what makes a story, and had gotten started with the idea that you need a character that has some kind of problem. I once heard this called, brilliantly, “something to worry us” by my good friend and wonderful teacher Judith Hillman Paterson. Trying to illustrate for them the difference between the beginning of a story and a simple statement of fact, I offered them two sentences:

The tree stood in the woods.

The tree stood, alone, in the woods.

Alone. Wow did that word get a response. Suddenly, they saw the tree as a character, something they could relate to, and feel for. Alone is something to worry us. For them, that single word – alone – turned the second sentence into the beginning of a story. I wasn’t exactly expecting that. The words just came out. But it’s certainly given me food for thought.