My eyes scanned the page voraciously, reading at a reckless pace.
I was sprinting through the pages, the words flying through my field of vision. But, when I glanced up, they were standing over me, with an expectant look on their faces.
I noticed everyone around me for the first time. The girls jumping rope, the group of friends eating at their table. It was a typical recess, and I was in my typical spot: the bench in the corner, reading a book.
The boys always came over to poke fun at me. To ask me what I was reading and make a snide remark. To make me feel like an outsider, when I was perfectly happy to lose myself in whatever book I was reading. Once, they yanked the book from my hands and the pages ripped.
Like all typical bullies, they needed a bit more empathy — and maybe a book or two.
But truthfully, everyone needs to be more empathetic.
We live in a world where systemic oppression runs rampant and we have trouble, even for a second, trying to put ourselves in other’s shoes to truly understand them.
It’s a hard thing to do when we’re complex individuals living out infinitely different lives. The vastness of our own human complexity is difficult enough to understand. It’s incredibly difficult to know yourself, let alone another person. It takes creativity and sensibility to understand something we haven’t experienced in first person.
Empathy allows us to relate to each other in a more humane way. It should help us think critically about the effect our actions have on other people. It should help us be nicer human beings.
But the problem is empathy isn’t clear cut. There is no set of guidelines, rules or procedures determining how to be empathetic. There’s no one way to teach empathy.
So what do we do?
One way to cultivate and practice empathy is to read literary fiction.
A study published by Scientific American has linked reading literary fiction to improve empathy in readers. The study found literary fiction gives less explicit clues as to what the characters are thinking, and as readers fill in the gaps to understand and imagine fully formed characters, they are better able to do so outside of reading as well.
The constant imagination and mental visualization that accompanies reading basically fortifies our empathetic brain muscles. But, it wasn’t just reading one passage that yielded those results. Data showed people who had historically been well read were more likely to be empathetic.
So, it’s a skill that takes time, dedication and practice in a fairly uncharacteristic way. No wonder we often lack it.
We need to read. We need to read books from perspectives we’ve never experienced — books written by women and men from every race and ethnicity. Just reading anything won’t help you unless you internalize different perspectives. This is why representation, in authors and characters, is also an important component — although, that’s a whole other issue I don’t want to get into right now.
I will never be the characters I read about, but for a second I can slip into their lives and experience the world through their eyes. I can live in their different culture or time period and try to understand their motives based on that context.
And hopefully, when I emerge from the pages, I can be a better person to those outside the written world.
Empathy is a hardly-talked-about quality, but it’s important, especially now. Unless we try to see life like others see it, we will stay entrenched in our own world views and create even more divisiveness within our nation.
The bullies from my childhood could have benefited from picking up a book and trying to empathize. Maybe then they’d know what it was like to be a book-loving girl who just wanted to be left alone at recess.
Gaby Morera, ’17, is the editor in chief of The Brown and White. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.