On Stories and Empathy

For the last few years, I’ve ended every school year by giving students what I refer to as my “empathy” speech, a 5-7 minute attempt to contextualize the importance of the subject I teach (English). None of this is probably terribly new, but this year I felt like writing it out because this is my blog and I can do what I want. So here’s a modified/expanded version…

Nothing that we do in school matters as much as we think it does. GPA, test scores, college acceptances. Our culture pushes these so hard on kids as markers of success. If you work in schools or are a parent of a teen (or have been a teen in this society), you’re probably well aware of the psychological/emotional damage that results from encouraging kids to base their self-worth or identity on material success. We might admire people for their achievements, but, ultimately, when we think of the people who personally matter to us most and why, it’s probably not because of any of these things.

At the end of the day, what matters most in this world is how we treat other people. The people that matter most to us personally are the ones who have shown us the most compassion, who have been there for us during difficult times, who have accepted us fully no matter what, who have genuinely listened to us and made us feel seen and understood. Doing these things for others does not require a 4.0, a perfect SAT score, or a college degree. (Not to say the material doesn’t matter at all–it’s difficult to care for others if all of your emotional energy is spent on surviving at the material level.)

Empathy must be at the heart of our actions toward others. Not obligation. Not our resume. Not a desire to appear “good” to others or to ourselves. People can sense fakeness a million miles away, and when they do, those actions become condescending or demeaning or dehumanizing. Instead, we must strive to feel as others feel to the extent we are best able to and let that guide how we treat them. This means when something good happens to a close friend, we feel happy not jealous. It means when a loved one is sad, we understand that they need to process that sadness, not just stop crying. It means when a community we care about suffers injustice, we want to help them make things right.

Admittedly, this is an uphill battle. We’re ego-driven creatures in a society that values individualism over all else. However, I believe it’s possible to develop our capacity for empathy in the same we can we develop our physical health, intelligence, wealth, or success–and it’s more important that we do so. This doesn’t happen passively, though. We need to strive to do so in the same way we work so hard to build those others aspects of our lives.

Listening is the way to expand empathy. I’m not talking about engaging in a debate and listening to someone’s abstract political opinions. I’m referring to truly listening to someone else’s personal story–what has happened to them, how they feel about it, how they interpret it, etc. And then, once it’s told, not giving advice or analysis but asking questions to clarify and to deepen understanding. When we do this–especially with regularity–we connect with someone at a personal level. We recognize their humanity as we put ourselves in their position. Many of us do this naturally with our family members and close friends, which is why they’re likely the ones we care about and empathize with the most. I would argue that when our relationships with our families/friends feel superficial or strained or toxic, it’s because there’s an imbalance in whose story is being told/listened to.

Who we’re able to come into contact with personally is limited by time and space, but stories–regardless of medium–demolish those boundaries. Books, movies, TV shows, poems, songs, video games, art, comics, etc. allow us to listen to the stories of those we don’t or can’t come in contact with regularly. Fictional or not, stories are stories, and stories are exercises in empathy. A story invites you to live someone else’s life for a spell. And I’m biased as an author and an English teacher, but I believe books are (currently) the best medium for developing empathy. The act of reading, of swimming in someone else’s language, puts you inside their head for a few hours/days/weeks in a way that watching someone’s story play out on a screen cannot.

This is why it’s so important that we have a diversity of story-experiences and a diversity of stories and storytellers. The narrower our story-experiences, the narrower our empathy will be. The wider our story-experiences, the wider our empathy will grow. And because how we treat others is based upon our capacity for empathy, growing our empathy will lead to a better world for all of us. 

A few caveats that I’m too lazy to figure out how to best integrate into this piece: 

  • A story will NEVER be an exact replication of a lived experience–it’s important to understand and acknowledge this limit. We can’t ever listen/read/view a story and then know exactly what it is like to have actually lived that. The best stories may approach that limit, but it can be damaging to assume knowledge we don’t have.
  • Even though I believe that if we want a world where everyone’s full humanity is recognized, everyone must grow their empathy, there is more of a moral imperative on society’s dominant group to do so if we’re ever going to see practical change. Men must listen to women. White people need to listen to people of color. The rich need to listen to poor. The free must listen to the incarcerated. And so on. The paradox is that as part of the group with power, they are the least likely to do so. They don’t have to, and they, in fact, stand to lose some of their power by doing so. Those with less power may push to tell their stories and make them be heard, but we can’t  force someone to listen. Those in power have to decide to do that themselves. Those with power must make the effort to create space for those with less power to tell their stories, genuinely listen to those stories, and then convince others with power to do the same.
  • This post is kind of a response to that article that made the rounds a while ago titled “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” Not really a direct response, but maybe a result of thinking about that question.
  • I guess this is my second post about empathy. Here’s my first one. Of course, there’s much much much more to say about empathy, storytelling, and power.

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