Empathy – A Cure for Our Ills

What makes you love a book? For me, it’s the author’s ability to draw me into the character. If I can sink into a character’s mind and see the world through her eyes, feel her joys, sorrows, anger, passion, love or lust, I love the book.

My friend Linda Apple and I sometimes debate whether it’s called point of view or perspective. But, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. What’s important is to understand the importance of the author’s ability to help the reader experience the story through a character–to get the reader to empathize with the character.

My own writing journey began with writing in journals in my early teens. In the very secret and very private writings of those journals, I tried to get someone to see the world through my eyes, even if that “someone” was only my diary.

From there, I began to write stories in my high school creative writing class. Often, these stories were about myself, thinly masqueraded as a fictional character. It was my way to covertly get the world to see something through my eyes.

Over the years, I grew as a writer and person, and the inspiration for my characters came from other people in my life–people whose lives I wanted to understand and wanted my readers to understand.

Trying to understand my mother was the biggest motivation in writing my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. By the time I completed my novel, I was also better able to understand what it must have been like to be Japanese during World War II, and I hoped my reader might step into the shoes of those who were perceived as “different.”

Which brings me back to my original question: What makes you love a book?

Whether it’s the character, the story, a lesson learned–whatever–it seems to me, it all has to do with the ability to empathize–to feel a story that’s not your own, and as a result, also feel compassion.

Which leads me to my next question, and the reason for this blog post.

What has happened to empathy in the real world?

I ask this because from what I’ve seen on social media, we seem to have lost the ability or desire (not sure which it is) to put ourselves in another’s shoes–to try to see the world through another’s eyes. Instead, we stay within our “tribes,” perhaps because it’s safest and most comfortable there.

In my opinion, most of the divisiveness today might be resolved with practicing empathy:

  • Political differences
  • Racial differences
  • Pandemic differences (The fact there we battle each other against a common enemy is proof of how tribal we’ve become.)

A timely example of this is the ire I see at the statement, “Black lives matter.” I’ve seen the following meme as a response from many of my friends and family.

Of course, “All lives matter,” and I don’t believe the intent of saying “Black lives matter” is to negate the value of all other lives. As a writer who has used writing to understand the world, when I hear the words, “Black lives matter,” I think about the individuals who have cried those words:

A mother whose son has been killed.

A man handcuffed for no reason, other than the color of his skin

A senator who is pulled over for driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood

But instead of thinking of the individual stories behind the words, we communicate with talking points and memes, rarely making the slightest effort to put ourselves in the shoes of “the other side.”

“There is nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you’re following the rules, but being treated like you’re not. Recognize that just because YOU do not feel the pain, the anguish of another does not mean it does not exist.”                                                                                           ~ Senator Tim Scott

Writers communicate with our characters by asking questions like the following to get to know them. I call it “Interviewing Your Character.

  • What is it like to be you?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What are you trying to say that nobody seems to hear?
  • How can I help your voice to be heard?
  • Tell me a secret.
  • How did you feel when [that bad thing] happened?
  • Tell me about your perfect world.

What if we asked those same questions in the real world? Even if we can’t or won’t ask questions like these out loud, we can think about how we’d answer the questions ourselves, if we were in their shoes, to try to imagine the thinking, feelings or challenges of those who differ from us.

In its series, “A Year of Living Better,” The New York Times published an article titled “How to Be More Empathetic.”

  1. Practice Empathy – Try talking to new people – those outside of your “tribe.” Better yet, try out someone else’s life. Visit their family, their place of worship.
  2. Admit You’re Biased – We’re all biased. Once you can admit it to yourself, find ways to overcome your bias.
  3. Stand Up for Others – I’ll admit, this is a tough one for me, because it takes courage, especially in this politically correct era. What if I say something wrong, or offend someone with what I say? Is that a setback? Also, on social media, so often we’re plunged into a rabbit hole, trying to get someone to understand. But the NYT article states, “It’s not about you.”
  4. Read Books – As I mentioned earlier, my favorite books are written in deep point-of-view–in a manner in which I can “become” the character. So, books can be a way to exercise our empathy muscle. Right now, I’m reading the book, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I’d like to add another item that wasn’t included in the NYT article, because it’s something I see happening far too often, and I believe it’s the enemy of empathy.

Don’t Generalize – Generalizations are just another form of prejudice. It’s an “out” for us–a simple way of thinking that enables us to disregard the hundreds, maybe thousands of INDIVIDUAL stories in every group we generalize.

We can change who’s president. We can change the laws. We can tear down statues, censor movies and books. We can be rid of all the things that divide us now.

But none of it–NONE OF IT–will do any good at all, if we don’t also change our hearts with empathy and compassion for those with whom we differ.




This entry was posted in politics, prejudice, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Empathy – A Cure for Our Ills

  1. Jan Morrill says:

    Reblogged this on Jan Morrill, Author & Speaker and commented:

    Writers use empathy to create a character in fiction. But what happened to empathy in the real world?


  2. Those last two paragraphs are key. We change presidents and laws and other things routinely, but hearts and minds don’t change because of those things. They change when we get to know people who aren’t like us (and there are many ways that people can not be like us) and realize they’re people, too. That can happen by reading, preferable to me than watching news coverage, which can be so slanted just by the words chosen or the scenes used although obviously books can be slanted too (but you have more time to think about them and go back and reread and rethink, but even more so by meeting the people not like us in situations where we have something in common: job, religion, book club, hobby, etc. Those aren’t hostile environments (generally) where differences are touted, but places we can come together and see our commonality. Also people will do and say things in the heat of the moment and in large groups or mobs that they wouldn’t do or say to another individual or in a small group.

    That’s my more-than-two-cents worth, Jan. Thanks for another thoughtful post on a difficult subject.



Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s