Fiction is uniquely positioned to develop and increase empathy, because it provides a way around and under and through the barriers most people put up around their hearts and minds.
Humans think in stories. Why? Because we spend our lives learning the rules that ensure our survival.
Our brains are wired to learn in two ways: first, by direct personal experience - a hard way to learn some rules. Our feelings then cement the lessons, make them unforgettable.
And second, by empathy - acquiring knowledge through the experience of others.
For this, reading fiction is the best way to learn. The rub is the experience has to feel real for it to serve that purpose, exactly as if it happened to us. And the way we do that is through our emotions, which are engaged when the experience is ours.
Fiction is better than facts: facts have no emotional component to make them stick. We store them away, hope to remember them when we need them. Going on a hike across the desert? Bring water. Check.
Fiction is better than non-fiction: reports of the experience, say, of crossing the Antarctic in the middle of winter, are both entertaining and raise in us sympathy for the sufferings of the explorers. Poor guys!
And reading fiction is much better than video input for one simple reason: we can’t pretend video is happening to us when it is so clearly happening to someone else. Sympathy, not empathy.
And that’s the key: reading fiction is the best way we have to feel the emotions created by experiencing something as directly as possible without it happening to us. Because, as we read, we have to put in the effort to create, out of black marks on a page, the actual experience in our minds.
Listening to stories works almost as well, but requires a storyteller, and the emotional component is affected by that teller.
Reading is just you and the book.
Oh, and the author.
Most fiction invokes the sympathetic response in the reader - the entertainment value hooks the reader, and we’re off on an adventure. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, because we need entertainment to relax after our own lives, however crazy or calm. Lots of entertainment.
But the best fiction aims deeper: to ‘grab the jugular.’ To ‘feel like a punch in the gut.’ Or the dreaded, to make you think. Which is really to make you experience, to fully engage your empathy, to make you feel as if it happened to you. To teach you. To change you.
Here is where another of the rules of life comes into play: humans hate being preached to. The preaching is an overt attempt to change the reader or the listener, via logic backed up with emotion. Usually negative emotion, fear: you are bad, you will go to hell, you must change! You are bad, you will destroy the Earth, you must change! If you touch the stove, you will get burned, don’t!
So the author without the moral authority of the preacher or the physical authority of the dictator has to be sneaky. Covert. Tease and wheedle rather than command. Better still: make you complicit in your own change. Make you want to change.
And how does the author do that? By pulling you in with superior entertainment value (remember, we need lots of stories) up front, and by layering the experience which creates the empathy for the new experience under that. Great stories, story moral picked up by the reader from being the character, having the story happen directly to him.
We then come full circle to Show, Don’t Tell. Show the character having the divorce or being attacked by terrorists or marrying the prince. If you have your parameters right, if you’re telling the story the right way, the reader has identified with the character, and the reader is getting divorced. The reader has to escape the terrorists to save the President. The reader walking down the aisle just realized the rest of her life is proscribed by royal protocol.
The author’s power is very real.
Authors don’t always use this power to its fullest, because there is a final step: choosing the purpose of the empathy, choosing the change for a higher aim: the good of humanity.
Sounds horribly preachy, doesn’t it?
What prompted this post is that I don’t like a recent way this power is being used, to push an agenda which makes me sick to my stomach: the proposal, supported by carefully crafted stories, that people who are defective/handicapped/ill should remove themselves from the world because they are a burden to other people, and that this frees the other people to go on to something better.
Disabled people already face an uphill battle in many areas of their lives. Having society go back to an earlier model of disability which says that ‘they’ are a burden to other people, and therefore don’t have the right to the same hopes and aspirations as the ‘normals,’ is a huge step backward. To encourage them to consider removing themselves is a further abuse against their rights to live and to love.
As an author of fiction, I have the following tools:
I know how to create sympathy and empathy.
I know how to appeal to men and women.
I know how to entertain.
I know how to bury something deep in the fabric of a story.
I know how to make you identify with a character.
I know how to create situations that test the limits of character and privilege.
I know how to manipulate your emotions.
And I know that ‘disability porn’ - using disabled people to be ‘inspirational’ - is roundly despised by disabled people everywhere.
By picking the right story to tell, I believe I can make you buy my premise that disability is not the end of life as you know it.
Now that I’ve revealed many of my secrets, you still have to decide whether you’re going to let me try. And then decide if I know what the heck I’m talking about.
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt is the author of Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, the first book in the trilogy, and is hard at work on the second and third.
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