• Linnea Archibald

On empathy and reading fiction

This week has been one full of bad news globally for so many people. Yet as I sit here at my kitchen table, looking out the window at the foot of snow that fell yesterday, my immediate life remains relatively unchanged. Work continues at its usual fast pace, our rhythms of tidying and rest are consistent, our family and friends are mercifully safe and healthy. By all accounts, I should feel no less happy than I did last week.


Yet my heart is heavy. And it should be.


Empathy, while opening us up to hurt that is not our own personal hurt, is a gift. It’s a motivator, a reminder, a catalyst. Before we can jump to action, we must first be moved to hold others’ pain as if it were our own as fellow human beings.


Yes, the headlines this week outlining the violent assault on Ukraine and its people and the dangerous actions taken against LGBTQ+ people in Florida and Texas don’t directly change my day-to-day life, and I’m guessing the same could be said for many of you. But we should care because those people are fellow humans. If you’re from a Judeo-Christian worldview, you also ostensibly believe they are made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully. It’s no small thing and it should make our hearts heavy.


Regardless of your religious or political beliefs, everyone has the capacity to empathize with others, but I think that capacity can be (and often is) deadened. There are a number of reasons for this of course, but one of the main reasons in my opinion is that we’ve built ourselves ivory towers containing only those who see things the way we see them from the same vantage point. When we never hear from (or more importantly listen to) those who have different life experiences from us, our capacity for empathy can be dulled.


One of the things I’ve witnessed in my own circle is that those who read widely and diversely tend to be more empathetic than those who do not. And I’m not just talking about reading other journalistic opinions than you would typically be drawn to, though that can be helpful to see the full forest rather than just individual trees. I’m primarily talking about reading non-internet-based works of fiction. Can reading fictional stories change the world and heal all ills? No, of course, it cannot. It can, however, breed empathy, which could inspire readers to take action on the behalf of others, even when their personal lives remain untouched.


Often the people I get most frustrated with, the people who can’t seem to empathize with people whose difficulties are removed from them, are the same people who spend all their time reading news and opinions online and very little time reading books, particularly fiction. I’m not saying that reading a novel is going to cause someone to have a complete change of heart to agree with someone they previously disagreed with. Nonetheless, it’s much easier to learn empathy from reading fiction than it is by reading an opposing political opinion piece. Of course, reading nonfiction can also expose us to other opinions and teach us empathy, but it often poses more of a stumbling block because the perception is that nonfiction must have a point, a thesis statement so to speak. Think of reading fiction as training wheels for empathy.


The nature of fiction is that it puts us in the shoes of a character and grants us access to see the world from their unique perspective. When we read a book from a perspective that is not our own, we see the inner workings of their emotions, and we feel along with them. Reading fiction is practicing empathy on a small scale. Just like any other habit, the more we practice empathy, the easier it becomes to empathize with hurting people in dire need of assistance. True empathy doesn’t push solutions to problems but listens to those who are hurting, understands, and offers help in the way it is most needed.


If you’re having trouble feeling empathy to those who are hurting, or your first response to demonstrated pain in the world is to “well actually” them to death, might I suggest stepping away from the computer for some fiction reading? Yes, reading a novel can also be a method of destressing and relaxing, but it’s also sharpening our often dulled sense of empathy and shared humanity.


Reading a novel may not be world-changing, but it can be perspective-changing, which is no small thing.


How are all my fellow empathetic people doing? It’s been a hard week and I’d love to hear how you’re doing and where you’re choosing to lean in, empathize, and help.

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