Reading and Empathy

The other night on television I saw a horse whisperer train a wild Dartmoor pony to reins in less than three hours. In actual fact, he didn’t whisper or talk at all. He just used body language, standing sideways near the pony’s head at first so as not to frighten the animal with his full on frontal energy. He didn’t use fear or domination at all, yet he was able to put  a rope over the pony’s head within an hour of first approaching him. (The program was an episode of Edwardian Farm, the one set in March, a British production.) It was a far cry from the bucking bronco method that tames a horse by breaking it. It seemed like evidence that as a civilization, we are learning kindness and becoming more empathetic.

Not that many of us are developing Star Trek’s Deanna Troi’s ability to feel other people’s emotions, but that we are more willing now than we once were to convince rather than control, to understand members of our own species and others and to relate to them less cruelly.

A few months ago,this idea led me to Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization in which the author explores the idea that we are not by nature aggressive, materialistic and self-interested, but rather fundamentally empathic. We “seek companionship and use empathic extension to transcend ourselves and find meaning in relationship to others”. (p. 21).

Whenever I talk about this idea, someone objects that there is still a great deal of cruelty in the world and there is never a scarcity of recent examples in the news to prove that. Too true and Rifken discusses that paradox. But that is not my point.

In general, society as I experience, it is growing  kinder. Certainly it seems to be as far as parenting is concerned. My own grandchildren attended an alternative school where the child’s needs came first to the extent that they planned their own lessons and misbehavior was subject to discussion and negotiation rather than discipline. This was in sharp contrast to the way I was taught and parented.

(Is it possible that that great cataclysm World War I and II grew out of the hands-off-unless- disciplining approach to childcare that characterized the time?)

Children learn to be empathic by having kindness and understanding modeled for them. Thank goodness there is more of that happening. But there is another route to empathy and that is narrative.

I realized this when I was teaching English, especially once we began asking students to write response journals about what they were reading. I observed their growing understanding, for example, of the children in John Wyndham’s The Chyrsalids or Harper Lee’s Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. Because these children were learning empathy for the other, the students learned it as well.

I taught Shakespeare from that point of view. Teenagers identified readily enough with Romeo and Juliet and suffered their tragedy. Hamlet was more of a stretch, but they could be hooked by his grief and his sarcastic cynicism.  Lear was a big stretch because he was so old, not to mention arrogant at first, but by the time he carried his dead daughter on stage, he too had won their sympathy. I could see their feeling for others expanding as they read.

My grandson, Leo, convinced me all over again. He started out with a core group of four: parents, half brother and family friend/care-giver.  Then his half-brother chose to go far away to live with his own father, the family friend moved back to Ireland and his parents separated. By the age of three, Leo was an angry, “difficult” child. He did play therapy. He attended a school that addressed these issues.  Both helped, but it was being read to that seemed to help most.

His mother started with Captain Underpants, no doubt, as she had with her older son and moved on to Wind in the Willows and other childhood classics. She read the entire series of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit and then began The Lord of the Rings. Once when she was on holiday, when he was seven, I was reading The Return of the King to him and he said, “Wait, wait, who said that?” How he usually kept all the characters straight in his seven-year old head is beyond me, but he did and he grieved when Boromir died.

In short, hours of being read to, night after night, not only established a steady bond, it also lead him out of his angry isolation into an understanding of others.

As a society, we are emersed in narrative more than we have ever been. We still dream stories at night, tell each other stories and read them as we have for centuries, but we also listen to stories on the radio and on ipods and watch them in our living rooms and movie theaters. Each of these stories invites us to expand our self-centeredness and embrace others.

This enriched narrative may well be producing a more empathic civilization.

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