Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Empathy Or The Devil

(My apologies in advance. This one's a bit more serious minded and thinky than my usual nonsense. Sorry. Occasionally I do get drawn in by the tractor beam of matters of actual import. It happens. I'm human. But rest assured, silliness will follow anon. Promise.)

As any writer will tell you ... if you want to write better, you have to read more.

But it's not just about picking up tips from other writers or honing the subtleties of narrative craft.

Yes. There are many, many things you can learn from reading that will help you develop your own literary voice or fine-tune your personal creative process.

But there's something else about the act of reading that's even more important.

Something not just for writers.

Something deeper.

Something primal.

Something I believe is pretty darn fundamental to our humanity.

And it's something that seems to be disappearing from our culture at an alarming rate.


We all know people who seem to have been born with an innate hypersensitivity to the plight of their fellow human. They have that rare ability to feel for others on a deep and meaningful level.

But those folks aren't very common.

For most of us empathy is a response that must be actively and regularly cultivated. It's not an autonomic response. It's a muscle that must be worked out regularly or it will atrophy. Use it or lose it.

And right now, as a culture, we don't seem to be using it.

I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist and I don't have any hard data to back up this observation, but I don't think it's hugely controversial to suggest that over the last couple of decades we've grown darker and meaner as a culture.

I'm not saying that there is no more kindness in the world. Just watch the response after a hurricane or an earthquake and you will see people show their best and most generous selves.

No, I'm talking about everyday sympathy and understanding. That's what seems to be in shorter and shorter supply.

We don't seem willing to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes anymore. Indeed, we seem now to resent the very fact that the other guy even has shoes in the first place.

Consider the catastrophic state of disrepair of our political discourse. It seems like we've devolved on a societal level. There's a ravenous, Lord of the Flies bloodthirstiness to our culture now that I just don't remember us having when I was 25.

Maybe it's the haze of memory, but I seem to recall a time when we could disagree without utterly loathing one another.

Today we seem to have an all-or-nothing, scorched-earth, I-win/you-lose-and-your-descendants-shall-be-obliterated-from-history way of dealing with each other.

I don't know. Maybe nothing's changed. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention back then.

Or maybe that open hostility was always there, but we just couldn't see it because the technology didn't exist yet that would reveal it. (If you're like me, a cursory glance at virtually ANY Internet comment section fills you with aching despair.)

Or maybe this frothing geyser of hate is really only representative of a small number of monsters but the electronic bullhorn of social media makes them seem far louder and more numerous than they really are.

I don't know.

But I can say this: The kinds of viciousness, cruelty and screaming rage that's being vomited up so openly just sets me back on my heels. Just look at some of the monstrously racist responses we've seen to the Black Lives Matter movement ... or the wretched misogyny of GamerGate ... or the reprehensible pro-gun backlash to any mass shooting ... or the naked hatred driving the recent wave of harassing transphobic bathroom laws ... or ... or ... or ... or ...

Is this really who we are now?

As a culture, we are hemorrhaging empathy at an alarming rate.

Where did it go? Can we get it back? If so ... how?

Oh, and what the hell does any of this have to do with reading?

Well, I believe there has never been a better tool for building an empathetic response in humans than reading long-form fiction.

I know. It sounds weird, but stay with me.

Long-form fiction -- specifically the novel -- cultivates our capacity for empathy like nothing else. There is no other activity that forces you to plant yourself behind someone else's eyes -- and more importantly, inside their thoughts -- quite so fully as novel reading.

Roger Ebert once famously defined the movie as "a machine that generates empathy." And yes, under the best of circumstances, movies (and TV) are machines that can work beautifully.

But it's the unfortunate nature of an audio-visual medium that we must start on the outside of a character. Hopefully we find our way inside over the course of the next two hours, but there are no guarantees we'll make that connection. Importantly, with a novel we generally start inside a character's mind.

For me, the time spent with a movie or television episode is just too brief. Alternately, even a fast reader is going to spend a significantly larger chunk of time with a book. And the longer we stay, the longer we psychologically marinate in another point of view. The more time we spend submerged within the thoughts of someone else, the more likely we are to build an emotional bridge to their perspective.

But it's even more than that.

Our engagement with a movie is largely passive -- it happens on the screen whether we're paying attention or not. Sets were built, images were photographed, words were written and performances were given. It's a fait accompli. And it happens on its own schedule with or without our input. If we wander out to the lobby for some Twizzlers, the movie doesn't stop and wait for us.

But with a book, when we close the cover, the story stops. It waits for us to open it again. If we stop reading in the middle of a sentence, the story waits right there -- suspended -- until we read the next word.

With a book, we are the engine.

By reflexively filling in the spaces between the words with imagination, we create a large portion of the experience ourselves. Our brains provide the thousands of tiny details. What the characters look like, what they sound like ... and most importantly ... what they feel like.

We supply a large portion of the experience. The engagement is cooperative, it's active.

The writer may provide the road map, but we're the ones driving the car.

We engage more fully. And consequently, we end up connecting with written characters and their experiences far more deeply than their filmic counterparts. We blend our own psyches into them. They become part of us in a way no other art form seems to.

Whether we started off identifying with that character or not, by the end, we've filled in so many of their blanks with own personas that we are actually changed on a fundamental level by meeting them half way.

No, seriously. It literally changes us.

For real.

Recent research seems to suggest that novel-reading physically changes the structure of the brain.

Let me say that again, louder and in bigger print.

It physically changes your brain.

According to a fascinating recent study at Emory University:

Heightened connectivity in other parts of the brain suggested that readers may experience “embodied semantics,” a process in which brain connectivity during a thought-about action mirrors the connectivity that occurs during the actual action. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

And you know what that sounds an awful lot like?


Is it a coincidence that the rise of the novel as a popular literary form approximately coincided with the Victorian era's Industrial Revolution? And is it coincidence that many of the most influential early novelists, like Charles Dickens, were known for their ability to sway public opinion with their deeply humane and compassionate stories about the plight of everyday people being ground up in the gears of a brutal, uncaring world?

I don't think so.

And is it a coincidence that we appear to be getting meaner and nastier as a culture at a time when we're just not reading novels like we used to?

I don't think so either.

Just look at book publishing today. Sales are shrinking and several publishing houses have been forced to merge or shutter entirely. If your book doesn't feature a love triangle of mopey supernatural teenagers swanning around a generic dystopia ... chances are nobody's reading it.

With the Internet and smart phones and social media demanding our attention ... we're consuming vast amounts of media, but we're doing it in a remarkably superficial, scattershot way.

We need to learn to concentrate again, to deep-dive, to focus.

140 characters at a time isn't going to get it done.

The Internet has brought people together like nothing else in human history. But electronic connectedness is not the same thing as human understanding.

Because if novel-reading does, in fact, change your brain, you can bet spending all day every day staring at Twitter on your phone does too. And those changes may not be quite as desirable.

Humanity isn't something we're born with. It's something we have to cultivate. Something we have to work at. It's a garden that needs constant tending.

So turn off this blog and go read a book.

Till next we meet ...

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