In These Times, Can Reading Fiction Help Create Empathy?

On election night, I, like many, had a meltdown when Trump was in the lead. From the get-go, I struggled with much of his rhetoric, and that it somehow didn’t prevent him from being elected (perhaps the biggest bitter pill to swallow). I also have some friends and family, people I trust and respect, who are kind, intelligent, and reasonable, who have a different view and a long informed knowledge of history. I am choosing to listen to what they have to say, and take solace in this as we move forward, and hope that things aren’t going to be as doom and gloom as most fear. I take heart in the fact that this wake up call may be a necessary, if not terrifying step – like the root and catalyst for all change. How it will unfold, I do not know.

The morning after the election, my husband and I were woken up (after what was sorta called sleeping) by Gemma, our elderly dog, when she came into the bedroom then suddenly fell over, her front legs giving. “Oh please, not today,” I thought, rubbing her legs as she lay down on the rug peacefully and cluelessly (lucky girl). My husband and I sat there together for a long moment, before I asked him (he had gone to bed after I did), “So, is it official?”

We sat there in stunned silence for another twenty minutes. I didn’t want to turn the TV on, but mostly, I didn’t want to face what I knew would be a (justifiable) barrage of Facebook posts full of anger, blame, and grief, and a warrior mentality to immediately begin fighting. I sensed it would only intensify my fear and sadness and was reluctant to fall further into a spiral of despair – call it selfishness, or self care – that somewhere in my core, for me, I knew would be corrosive and futile.

Then I thought of my novel, and shame coursed through me. Only a week prior, my agent had finally given my last of countless rewrites the green light, and my book was finally out on submission to publishers. I had been overcome with joy, relief and hope. But in that moment, I knew that given the election results, things could come to a halt. Would the economy tank? Would the editors be too devastated to read it?  I was crestfallen and worried, and ashamed that I was. I shook my head, pushing the thought away. How could I be thinking about my needs, my dreams, how my life could be impacted, when the effects for millions of others was going to be far greater?

In the ensuing days, I went through the motions of going about my business. I have an important job as the Executive Producer and Head of Sales for a production company. Important because the directors whom I represent – my directors – count on me for their livelihood. To promote them so that they can work and put food on the table for their families. My responsibility for that tiny tiny thread in the fabric of our world was all I could do in.

I spoke with other writers, and with my wonderful agent, who said something that comforted me, not just personally, because of my own aspirations, but which sparked a larger notion. “I believe now more than ever, that people need books. Not just escapism, but female driven, female empowerment novels.”

I am encouraged by this, surely. I believe that people will come from protesting in the street to my local cafe which I have been coming to for 10 years, where I have built a community and cleave to for comfort, conversation, and friendship (and wine). I believe that people need this now more than ever.

Because now more than ever, we need to find empathy for others. We need to try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, rather than closing our ears and hearts. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, no. It doesn’t mean or have to elicit a knee jerk reaction that anyone is trying to change our minds. We shouldn’t fear feeling moved, feeling compassion for others, or that it will somehow impede upon or influence our own positions. If we believe in what we believe in, why should it?

Recent studies show that reading fiction makes us feel for others (WSJ –  “The more fiction people read, the better they empathized….Reading fiction causes a spike in the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. It influences ability to intuit the emotions and intentions of people in the real world.” Yes, the real world. The world we live in.

Naturally, I hope that this finding bodes well for my own novel’s success. But it also underscores and magnifies the reason I read, and write, in the first place. I write to connect with others. I write to inhabit the experience of others, to be inside their skin in my imagination and in my heart, and to better understand them. To FEEL them. I write in order to constantly build that muscle, and perhaps create a shorter path, a short cut, to empathizing with other human beings’ pain and grief, in the moment that it rises to the surface, and as it percolates below it. It ignites my compassion cells, which like all of us, because it’s human nature, tend to lie fallow because we are consumed by our own self-serving lives.

And yet, while straining to put oneself into another’s shoes is a valuable and critical step, it is impossible to do so completely. I don’t profess or expect that I can ever understand – on a visceral level – in my guts and bones, what it’s like to experience someone else’s pain. I cannot inherit anyone else’s emotional and cumulative beliefs and experience. I can only try.

There is much we can do now to mend the hurt, but I think I’ll start there.