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.