The Importance of Reading to Develop Empathy

Last week certainly had its share of anger and violence here in the U.S. Pipe bombs were mailed to political leaders, 2 black shoppers were gunned down in a Kentucky Kroger store, and 11 Jewish people were murdered in their place of worship. Such violence (and the hate that fueled it) is utterly heartbreaking.

As I always do when tragedy happens, I try to make sense of it. I want to understand what could drive a person to hate people based only on their political views or ethnicity. There are no easy answers, of course, but one thing does seem obvious to me, and that’s how desperately we all need more empathy.

Over the weekend, I finished reading Anne Lamott’s newest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. In it, she talks about a writing class she was teaching for little kids, and says this:

I tell the six-year-olds that if they want to have great lives, they need to read a lot or listen to the written word. If they rely only on their own thinking, they will not notice the power that is all around them, the force-be-with-you kind of power. Reading and writing help us take the blinders off so we can look around and say “Wow,” so we can look at life and our lives with care, and curiosity, and attention to detail, which are what will make us happy and less afraid.

I’m not naive enough to believe that if people just read more books, they’ll never be violent or hateful. But I do think reading broadens our worldview and invites us into stories that are different from our own. It’s easy to fear what we don’t know, but it becomes increasingly difficult to be afraid of something we clearly understand. And isn’t much of our violence based on fear? We humans can turn on each other so quickly, making our neighbor into an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can’t love an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can eradicate or solve or ostracize, though. You can slowly keep adding labels to people that dehumanize them.

Later in her book, Lamott goes on to say, “Empathy, a moment’s compassion, seeing that everyone has equal value, even people who have behaved badly, is as magnetic a force as gratitude.” Empathy allows us to get rid of our imperfect and unjust labeling systems and see people for who they are: fragile, needy, and worthy of love and belonging, just like us. This is grace. When it applies to us, it’s the best thing imaginable. When it applies to people we’ve labeled and dehumanized, it can seem terrifying and unjust.

I’m certainly not immune to these feelings. I’m terribly uncomfortable with confrontation, so I try to stay out of political debates as much as possible. But I must admit that I have a hard time loving our current president. I’m offended by his words about immigrants, appalled by his treatment of women, sickened by his disregard for the truth, and shocked by the mess of his White House. His values are at odds with my faith and viewpoint. Last week I read a Facebook post from Lamott in which she’s talking about the battle inside to remember that grace always wins in the end. She says of Trump:

Twenty percent of me aches for the total barbaric ruins of his inner life. Twenty percent. That is a miracle. And on top of that, I’ve realized that God looks at Trump and sees His own suffering son, never leaves him and aches for him, too, pulls for him to be transformed by Love, loves him as a mother does her child.

That gutted me. Lamott’s words immediately gave me pause and helped turned my anger into empathy. While I’m still in strong disagreement with his policies, I’m doing my best to remember they’re coming from a broken man. Aren’t we all well-acquainted with brokenness?

In this time of violence and anger, I’m grateful for the power of words and books to change my own heart. I’m grateful for Born a Crime that showed me what it was like to live in Apartheid. I’m grateful for The Book of Unknown Americans that showed me how hard it is for immigrants to chase the American Dream. I’m grateful for The Ragamuffin Gospel that showed me how absolutely no one is beyond the reach of grace. My list could go on and on.

Reading widely isn’t going to save the world, but it might make us a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more empathetic. And that’s a good start.

2 comments

  1. Michael · 18 Days Ago

    Thoughtful post! I like the idea of reading diversely as a way to foster empathy and broaden our understanding of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s