Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Literature Evokes Empathy

The Ladies' Literary Society met last night to discuss our latest read: Empathy by Roman Krznaric.

The author is an authority on empathy and is trying to create a national, even a worldwide movement of empathy. According to the author, empathy is more powerful because it ignites help and change, whereas sympathy only brings pity.

To really understand a person, we must empathize or walk in his shoes. Once we know what it's like to go hungry or lose children to curable diseases, or not have a chance to be educated, we are more likely to help bring food, health, or opportunity into people's lives. Fortunately, many of us will never have to go hungry or lose a child to gain empathy-- so how do we develop this critical-to-happiness ability? There are many ways, and literature is one of the ways to walk in someone else's shoes.

 Literature brings empathy through vicarious experience.  How else could we know the misery of hiding in an upstairs apartment if it weren't for Anne Frank; how else could we boat through an African river mist and glimpse fear and uncertainty if not for Joseph Conrad; how else would I have understood poverty without Francie Nolan throwing the Christmas tree? Our heart and mind can change forever, can empathize without having to endure the hardship that provokes empathy.

When each woman was asked if she'd had a distinct moment of literary empathy, she knew exactly the book and the character.

Someone asked if movies or books were more powerful in stirring up empathy.

We decided that both were equally capable, but there was a difference. Hardly one of us could remember a film that evoked empathy, but we distinctly remembered the book that had changed our lives. The feelings from literature were burned in our hearts--whether it was a year ago or ten years ago. We knew the empathic moment.

To read a book requires an investment of time and heart. It may take weeks to finish a book. We journey over time with our characters; we are there from the beginning of their lives. The build up of their struggle becomes our struggle. Whereas a movie is a short blip. We may suffer or rejoice, but only for two hours and then the characters are gone-as quickly as they came.

Great literature changes us in all the best ways.