Writing As Empathy

I’ve talked about this before a little bit, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. This past weekend I was at a debate tournament with several fascinating people. In between debates I ended up simply sitting down and talking to most of them, hearing their backgrounds, and letting them tell their stories.

And once again I was reminded of the simple fact that stories are all around us. The people we walk by in, I don’t know, Wal-Mart have stories and stories–entire lives surrounding them. They’ve hurt and cried, they’ve laughed and rejoiced. People have stories richer than we could ever imagine. So often I, at least, find myself simply walking by these people. They’re just other shoppers. People who I’ll never see again, and probably won’t remember anything about them tomorrow.

But they’re not. They’re real people that have had real experiences. I need to remember that. Why?

My Dad will, on occasion, whenever we go to theme parks or something of the like, tell me about a game he plays. He’ll look around at the people surrounding him and make up stories about who they are, where they come from, and what they’ve experienced. Of course, he doesn’t think that these stories are really their stories, but it’s an exercise that’s always caught my attention, because it applies that basic belief: that everyone has a story. Even if we don’t know what it is, we can guess because there is one. But when we forget that, what happens?

Right now in Africa there are thousands who have died due to Ebola. But how many of us simply think of them as numbers? How many of us realize that they lived lives, that they had plans?

I know I have a tendency to simply think of numbers, and I need to stop. I need to remember that everyone has a history.

I tweeted out a link to an interview recently, and even though I can’t endorse the book or even everything that’s said in the interview, this one thing did stand out to me. The author being interviewed said this:

“There was a study done recently that shows that people who read fiction have a greater capacity for empathy, right? We all knew that; we just didn’t have the data to back it up. To learn about the lives of people who are nothing like you does teach you to understand that the world doesn’t rise and fall with you, and that you have to be charitable to others.”

In a sense, that’s why we write. It’s definitely not the only reason, but it’s an important one. Writing can help us see other people’s live, who they are, what they do, and why they do what they do. Which leads me to ask a question: is writing a form of empathy? I’ve talked before about how writing is thinking, and I still hold to that. But writing certainly doesn’t have to be just one thing–maybe it’s both thinking and empathy. I’m sure this has been talked about before, but this is the first time I’ve really examined it. So what do you think? Is writing a form of empathy?

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One thought on “Writing As Empathy

  1. It is quite amazing isn’t it? The billions upon billions of people that live, have lived, and will live on earth, each with a story longer and more fascinating than that of any human author.

    Each one of us is like a single thread, part of a brilliant tapestry that we, in our small existence, will never see the whole of. We will also never know the amazing tales of most of those whom we see every day.

    This is the appeal of writing: the ability to have insight into the story of another. Writing is both empathy and thinking; without both empathy and thinking, writing could not exist. Writing is the expression of both thinking and empathy.

    Thank you for this philosophical post Christopher. As writers, understanding this fact helps to humble us. We may think ourselves to be writers, but in actuality, we are characters in the great story of the most brilliant Author.

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