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. 

4 thoughts on “Empathy

  1. This morning I read the article (http://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=2164#m22784) about our new US ambassador for Children’s Literature, Kate DiCamillo, who was ruminating on her platform this year – “Stories Connect Us” – and it sent me back to yesterday when I read your blog entry.

    DiCamillo says, “Stories for me are a glass-bottom boat ride. We see each other; we open up. We change. Everyone is together in a room. Everyone is connected…. We are taken off that horrible rock of our aloneness. I want to work to bring more people together into a room.”

    I love the power of stories, and I love that my favorite children’s authors are writing about the connection that stories promote and provide. It is going to be good day!

  2. Thank you for pointing me to that beautiful piece. Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite authors and Because of Winn Dixie helped inspire me to write in this genre. Stories connect us. It’s true in a billion and one ways.

  3. The idea of fiction as psychologically complex seems really important to me re what you say, because it’s one of the things that not even film or theater can do the way books do. Well, I guess too a novel is just incredibly long-form in comparison to film. I don’t know that it’s quite the same for kids today, but when I was a kid books were more or less the only way for me to understand what life is like in places other than where I was growing up. Maybe that’s another difference between film/TV and novels. Novels are very often incredibly realistic to the tiniest detail, while not so many films try to portray a truly real world right down to costumes, locations, and speech.

    Empathy, we could use plenty of it : ). Nice topic!

    • I agree. And while I love films, and feel they give you a visual experience that can be even more powerful than one you get in a novel, by their very nature, they keep you a spectator. You can identify with a movie character, and root for them, but you won’t BECOME them in the same way you do when reading a novel.

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