Learning Empathy Through Fiction: Fine-Tuning Your Feelings

Between lazy beach days and morning train commutes, hopefully this summer has not passed you by without offering up a good read or two. I can already hear the obligatory schoolchildren groans of required summer reading and the adults who claim to be too busy reading newspapers to immerse themselves in a novel. Compared to the news or non-fiction books, fiction feels indulgent. Can reading a work of fiction expand your horizon of knowledge, of worldliness? Yes, of course it can. But erudition is not everything to be gained from reading. Fiction is able to bestow a priceless gift compared to the superficial airs of erudition: the gift of empathy. Those who read novels are more likely to be able to empathize (and do it well) than those who do not.

“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney is a novel of self-rediscovery set in the glitzy New York City of the 1980s. Written in the second person, “you” are the main character. At one point in the novel, this main character muses about something that was said to him: “the ineffability of inner experience.” He concludes that “certain facts are accessible only from one point of view–the point of view of the creature who experiences them… She meant that the only shoes we can ever wear are our own.” Ironic, isn’t it, how a work whose most distinctive stylistic choice is to refer to the second person throughout the narration also claims that inner experience is ineffable? Despite the seeming contradictions, McInerney has a point. The closest we can come to wearing someone else’s shoes is through reading fiction. It doesn’t have to be a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” or a story that breaks the fourth wall, or one like Bright Lights, Big City where “you” are the protagonist. Most fiction will situate you in a foreign mind or locale, and that is enough.

If McInerney is right in saying that if our thoughts, emotions, and urges of our “inner experiences” are untappable, then maybe we can access the “inner experiences” of others by removing them one step from our brains. And to remove the “inner experience” one step from the brain is to use the tool of language. Like any translation, the shift from thought to language may not fully capture the pure essence of the source material, but it may be as close as you can get. And, therefore, the closest you can get to taking a hammer and swinging it at the walls that divide us is through listening to one another and reading each other’s stories.

Fiction’s capacity to instill empathy exceeds that of movies, video games, or TV shows, because it relies solely on these “inner experiences” rather than the visuals of other media. As more and more people are opting for screens these days, now more than ever is the time to pick up a book. The sad fact about our political climate is that it has become an environment of us-versus-them. Whether the struggle is internal, existing between right- and left-wing citizens, or international, between Trump and North Korea, Mexico, and others, animosity abounds.  “America First” is what Trump preached at his inauguration, a statement innately devoid of empathy. To prioritize one group or nation is to put another second, and, as idealistic and corny as this may sound, everyone should come first. In terms of pragmatism, yes, a nation’s president should care for his or her own people to begin with, but with this duty should come the awareness that no one is truly more deserving of anything than anyone else. That we were born into our respective bodies and minds is a matter of total chance.

We ossify our ties to our own identities since they are all we know, but maybe these ties are more fluid than we think. And maybe, to begin fumbling at these ties and knots, all we need to do is open a book.

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