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Reading: a continual education in empathy

Empathy can be a difficult thing to teach because it’s a difficult thing to understand. We are all aware of it to a degree, but putting it into words and conveying it can be a much greater challenge. When it comes to teaching empathy, literature is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools at mankind’s disposal. We learn best through experience but sometimes we simply don’t have the opportunity for certain scenarios, and books are able to step in and fill that gap in our knowledge. Fiction or not, the messages in an author’s words hold true and can deepen our appreciation for society and others around us, by allowing us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Speculative fiction is a very well suited genre to this task purely because it gives authors the freedom to exaggerate a social situation to the extreme. Sometimes, that’s just the push we need to see the complexity in someone else’s point of view and gain a level of clarity that we can apply back to the real world.

Whether we realise it or not, when we fully invest in a character, we begin to reflect them in our outlook, our mannerisms and the way we act around people. It may be that there’s a strong urge within you to assert change in your life and become more like the protagonist, or it may be just the opposite. Regardless, it is almost impossible to remain unaffected by characters when we are encouraged by authors to put together the pieces of their personality for ourselves.

Literature can teach us a new way to think and forces us to pause and reflect on the world from time to time

Reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I felt that I could truly comprehend the absolute devotion of a parent to their child through the sacrifices McCarthy’s protagonist is willing to make. Another particularly relevant example in recent years is The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s story can teach a reader what it’s like to feel helpless. The book deals in detail with the oppression of women but the same ideas and messages can be extrapolated and applied to any minority group. That is the power of literature: a message is so much more than it may appear upon first reading and it can be unique to each of us in our own interpretations.

But we can also draw more heavily from real life without branching into non-fiction. At school, most of us are forced to study works like Of Mice and Men or To Kill A Mockingbird and, even if I didn’t so much at the time, I can really see the value in this education. Our teachers encourage us to see beyond the basic words on the page and to really form the picture for ourselves. Literature can teach us a new way to think and forces us to pause and reflect on the world from time to time. This is something that is all too easy to brush over and I think it is important that it remains a part of our education.

An access to literature is an access to a thousand new voices

Now more than ever, the world may seem divided. Often the news can seem gloomy or hopeless but through sharing the experiences of a character, I think we can all look for the light in the darkness or at least understand the cause of strife. Maybe that distant event now feels closer to home and we are drawn out of our shells and into action. Maybe we can imagine a news story from a first person perspective having read something similar. The possibilities are endless in this regard and I think that literature is one of those things that will always unite us. 

To ensure literature that encourages compassion across cultures and makes vastly different experiences accessible is as effective as possible, we need to keep pushing for translations of new works and masterpieces. Works written by authors in languages other than English convey a whole host of voices that need to be heard, and more importantly, understood. An access to literature is an access to a thousand new voices, and such a chorus can encourage a new way of thinking and a moment of empathetic consideration before we act. 

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