Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.
I’m going to bet that every day My Readers—you supportive people—are empathetic. You are caregivers of parents, children, and grandchildren. Your careers are in healthcare, education, communication, business and retail. You meet people, talk to people and often make quick but necessary decisions about their needs. Then, depending on your day, you might go home exhausted, might even be curt or blunt with your partner. But soon you relax, maybe apologize. But do you need to recharge your empathy battery? Read a book—literature.
Recent Research Advises: Read Tolstoy, Jane Austen, David Foster Wallace
There’s been a lot of press about empathy because of a recent study Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Researchers define “theory of mind” as the crucial skill of understanding or imagining the mental states of others. They asked participants to interpret facial photos showing people with differing emotions after reading either a work of nonfiction or popular fiction or literary fiction. Those that read literary fiction were most accurate in their answers.
Mark O’Connell, in discussing this in a piece for Slate, asks if “the ability to read emotions from pictures of faces really translates into anything like real empathy?” He’s all for reading literary fiction but wonders at the entire premise of the research: “literature as a PX90 workout for the soul, as cardio circuit for the bleeding heart.” MAYBE!
But O’Connell believes, as I do, that literary fiction’s biggest draw is to allow the reader to explore someone else’s life—their dreams, sufferings, joys. He quotes David Foster Wallace: We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
Would a Fun Quiz Reveal the Difference??
Here are three excerpts–a literary, nonfiction, and popular fiction excerpt. Does one more than the others make you identify with a character’s pain (Wallace) or surprises…the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves (George Eliot)?
1. Sam and Remi wandered among the skeletons that had been laid out on tables and tarps to be studied and photographed but which had not been professionally examined since they’d been exhumed. At one point, Sam stopped for a moment. He knelt by the skeleton, craning his neck to see the face from another angle.
“What’s wrong?” said Remi.
“Have you ever tried to get people to keep a secret?”
“Sure,” she said. “That’s pretty much how girls spend sixth grade.”
“No. Once you tell someone that what you’re saying is a secret, that makes it valuable, a commodity to be traded. Once someone says he has a secret, it means he wants to tell. It’s an invitation to nag him until he gives it up.”
“Here are a thousand people who had a secret. Not one of them told?”
“Got to hand it to the Huns,” she said. “They knew it’s hard to talk when you’re headless. We didn’t have that option in sixth grade.”
2.“No,” said Olive. “I came because you were nice enough to write me a note.”
“I was always sorry my kids didn’t have you for a teacher. So many people don’t have that spark, do they, Olive? Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea? I’m going to have some.”
“No, I’m fine.” Olive watched as Louise stood and moved through the room. Louise bent to straighten a lamp shade, and the sweater fell across her back, showing the thin form of it. Olive didn’t know you could be that thin and still be alive. “Are you ill?” she asked, when Louise returned with a teacup on a saucer.
“Ill?” Louise smiled in that way that reminded Olive once again of flirtation. “In what way ill, Olive?”
“Physically. You’re very thin. But you certainly do look beautiful.”
Louise spoke carefully, but again with that playful tone. “Physically ill, I am not. Though I have little appetite for food, if that’s what you’re referring to.”
Olive nodded. If she had asked for tea, she’d have been able to leave when she’d finished. But it was too late now. She sat.
3. On a nationally syndicated public television program, a middle-aged man with a trim beard and a warm Texas drawl is earnestly addressing a sizable viewing audience. With near-religious intensity, befitting his seminary training, he speaks movingly about the psychology of addiction and its roots in childhood trauma. Often referring to his own abusive upbringing and adult struggle for emotional health, this influential psychotherapist-educator–John Bradshaw–repeatedly emphasizes the lasting importance of our earliest years. Gazing into the television camera, he urges the viewer to “embrace your lost inner child.”
The first excerpt is from Clive Cussler’s novel THE TOMBS, the second from Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, and the third from VISIONS OF INNOCENCE by Edward Hoffman. If anyone has strong opinions as to which would make you more empathetic, please comment. Possibly my choices are skewed, but popular fiction does tend to emphasize the story line and nonfiction focusses on exactly what is happening, not leaving much room for wonder, conjecture and peer into another’s soul. The research, apparently, found that literary fiction MOST OFTEN does the latter. (FYI The second excerpt is literary fiction: Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner.)
No matter what you read, having empathy and compassion for others can elevate your life, give you inner peace. You do need to do something else, however. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, zeroed in on it. He wrote: Empathy is incredibly important, but if we are thinking about ourselves first, and only ourselves, we can’t empathize. We must get ourselves out of the way, and think of the other person… Be self-less rather than selfish. Babauta admits that he is still learning how to do that. Aren’t we all? Read more of his ideas here. Read, read, read. Reading more might just make you more empathetic!
UPDATE: Dec. 29th, 2013 Another opinion by Robert M. Sapolsky from the LA Times. Another Use for Literature.
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