If there’s one thing the world needs right now, it’s empathy.
To possess empathy is to have the ability to understand and vicariously experience the thoughts and feelings of another human being. The empathetic can hurt along with the fallen. They can rejoice in the triumphs of others. They can grieve with the broken.
It’s a skill that many of us have turned off.
A part of that is because we speak and look into screens rather than faces more than ever.
This isn’t a yearning for the “good old days”. We’re more connected than ever via technology, and that’s a wonderful advantage that is making the globe into a true community.
But a screen is a barrier as much as it is a bridge. We’ve all seen the wasteland of that social media became during the 2016 presidential election. We saw man’s inhumanity to man take on digital form as each side of the ideological and political war dehumanized the other. It’s easy to demonize from the other side of the glass.
Another cause of our lack of empathy is tribalism. We divide into opposing groups, and anyone who is not a part of us is labeled the “other”. When a person or group is othered, they are dehumanized—they are not as important as “us”. Empathy stops, and often, we even become more focused on hurting those we disagree with than helping those we love.
In this last case, especially, everyone suffers.
But while many of us have dulled our empathy, purposefully or not, it can be regained.
This answer lies in something few of us do. It lies in reading literary fiction.
The strength of fiction to develop empathy is best explained through its contrast with film. Movies let us see what’s going on—we’re watching the spectacle, the story, from the outside.
Not so with fiction! In the written word, we are transported into the very psyche of a character. We don’t just watch them; we live inside them. We make their mistakes. We feel what they feel. We experience their life.
It is precisely this element of experience that makes fiction so powerful. Other forms of media may someday catch up when virtual reality rises to prominence, but right now, fiction is king when it comes to living the life of another.
That total escape from our own lives is one of the top draws of fiction. After all, who wouldn’t want to go on a journey to Mt. Doom in order to overthrow a dark lord and save the world? Who wouldn’t want to relax on a divan with Dorian Gray or trade tales of revenge with the Count of Monte Cristo?
Something more than mere entertainment happens when we get inside the head of a character. We see from their viewpoint. And if that viewpoint is very different from ours, we gain an understanding that we didn’t have before.
That is the power of literature—fiction written to educate, as well as entertain.
The word educate comes from the Latin root, “educare,” which means “to lead out”. That is exactly what good, empathy-fostering literature does. It doesn’t preach. Good literature doesn’t lead to something. It leads out of presuppositions and prejudices. It helps us see clearly. Through living the life of someone else for a time, it leads us away from tribalism and humanizes the other.
“You don’t just learn a new way of interacting. In your mind, you are the different characters you are playing,” says Loris Vezzali, professor of social psychology at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. Vezzali conducted a study which found that students reading the Harry Potter series became less racist when exposed to the fight against evil and its prejudices against those who aren’t of a wizarding bloodline.
When we read, we absorb the experiences of the characters we read about. We become them. And when we’re done, we’re just a little more able to “become” those around us in a way that allows us to see them apart from our presuppositions.
A 2013 issue of Scientific American broke the story of a series of studies in which a large number of participants were divided into groups and given different reading assignments—genre fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, and nothing.
After finishing their readings, the participants underwent tests that measured their ability to understand other people’s emotions—their empathy was tested.
The researchers found that there was a significant difference in the groups. The participants who read literary fiction—stories meant to convey meaning and focus on the psychology of characters—did markedly better on the empathy tests. They were able to infer the emotions of others, were able to understand and feel for their fellows.
They became more empathetic.
This is why charities like First Book are incredibly important. First Book donates books to underprivileged children who might not otherwise have the chance to read. These kids, who grow up in hard situations, run the risk of developing into hard adults.
But introducing reading at an early age can help develop a sense of empathy early on. And that can change the world.
So when next you have a little time on your hands, break out a book. Read some Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try some Tolkien or R.A. Salvatore, or perhaps some Patrick Rothfuss.
Find something that challenges you. If you can’t stand a certain group—be it political, religious, or ethnic—read a book that features a main character of that group.
The more sets of eyes you see through, the clearer your own vision will be, and the greater your capacity for empathy will become. And one day, you’ll have a moment when your book drops to the ground, and you realize an important truth.
We’re all one. We’re all human. And we need to be kind to one another.