Learning Empathy from Books: How Different We Are Not

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Learning Empathy from Books: How Different We Are Not

By Ann Jacobus

We humans are different on the surface: varying by gender, color, sexuality, religion, cultural traditions, socio-economic status, and age. Some of us are not as able-bodied as others, and a percentage of us are left handed or introverted. Some of us like to play organized sports, or don’t. Some of us love books, others not so much.  And so on.

“Different” of course, is relative. Majorities largely determine societal rules, norms, and values, and no one fits into or outside of all of them. Every child, by virtue of living in an adult world, already knows the injustices and powerlessness of being a minority.

My American family and I lived for four years in the Kingdom of Bahrain, in the Arabian Gulf, a.k.a. the Persian Gulf. It’s a region of the world where the vast majority of people are Muslim, and Islam is observed conservatively. Differences there are not always well-tolerated. We learned what it was like to be in a tiny minority, to be foreigners, to be different.

Bahrainis made it pretty easy for us, however, as they are hospitable and in contrast with some of their neighbors, very tolerant—probably because foreigners have been passing through there for the last 5000 years. Expats, guest laborers, and visitors are all free to live, work, consume alcohol and practice their religions. There are churches, Sikh, and Hindu temples, and a synagogue, that in some cases have been there for centuries.  While Bahraini women do cover themselves, non-Muslim women are not expected to, although we dressed with respect for local traditions.

I wish everyone who wanted to, especially children, could have the experience of living outside their country and culture of birth (and then be able to return to a safe home), but reading can accomplish something similar. Reading books builds and exercises empathy.

In the hands of a good author, we can enter the mind and soul of a character and almost always come to the conclusion that every human heart experiences the same hopes, struggles, and fears.

Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Kit from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Harriet the Spy, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Bud Not Buddy, Joey Pigza, the Wimpy Kid, and Joseph of Saipan from Warriors in the Crossfire, experience trials and emotions with which I completely empathized – both as a child, and now. They were, and are, all just like me.

Author Donna Jo Napoli said that no less than civilization itself is built on empathy. In a recent lecture defending sad or tragic stories for children, she reminded us that, “Bad things happen to good people. And to good kids.” Kids who have bad things happen to them take solace and comfort in reading that these things happen to others.

They are not alone.

Kids who are lucky enough not to have bad things going on need to understand that many – even most – children don’t live as safely and comfortably as they do. Reading about the mishaps, suffering, and triumphs of others builds empathy.

The world continues to shrink, and so many of us from every corner of the planet are connected by cyber space, if not physical space. Often, we can share our stories directly and find our commonality.  But there will always be a place for the profound experience afforded between the covers, or on the portable reader screen, of a good book that shows us how different we are not.

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