I’ve argued for a while now that one of the most prominent powers of literature is its ability to promote empathy—and this without the reader ever noticing what’s going on.
Among the greatest troubles when discussing faith and culture is that we all come from such different structures. I and you and everyone you know are by nature unable to project ourselves into experiences we have not had. The shorthand of this is that everything that feels foreign to me feels comfortable to someone else. And what feels cozy and warm to me feels wrongheaded to someone else. And we have a hard time seeing this kind of thing—because we begin in ourselves.
Forget for a moment that most of us in the U.S. are products of a culture that is superbly focused on individualism and the rightness of personal experience. Even without that formidable personal origin, our biological nature prompts this initial self-concern as well. The typical human experience is to perceive the world from behind the eyes and within the head. Proprioception gives us the sense that our thoughts and calculations and beliefs and rational self all exist within the geography of our skulls. Rather than five feet outside ourselves or in that tree over there or in this hand here or even, more romantically, in the space between you and me—rather than any of the thousands of possible places for the self to reside, the general experience is that the έγώ sits firmly and (usually) immovably a couple inches behind the eyes. From this starting place, the entirety of our unadulterated life experience is wholly our own. My life and all that it contains is my own alone. It is not yours and you can only guess at what it would be like to be me. And vice versa. The things others see and feel are alien to us. The only way for us to be someone else or feel as someone else is through the imagination—and even then, we’re still only ever us pretending at what it’s like to be someone else.
This is why it’s so hard to love other people, so hard to engage a true and honest compassion for those who are unlike us. With those who are a bit like us, we can short-circuit our lack of empathy by pretending the other person is us (or near enough). We can think that if they were us, they would want this or maybe that. For most of us, that’s what compassion or charity looks like. It’s doing to others as we would have them do unto us. A fine rule so far as it goes, but when the things that others want are not the things that we ourselves would want, guessing how to do good to them or for them becomes excruciatingly difficult enough that most of us don’t even bother. Hence wars and sexism and religious intolerance and human trafficking and nationalism and homophobia and racism and school rivalries. We who would hope to love fail to love because we simply don’t understand what love would require.
This is where literature comes in as one of the most powerful tools the world has yet devised. In literature, the reader doesn’t just escape their own troubles for the space of a book. In literature, the reader doesn’t merely learn new things about the location or period in which the novel occurs. In literature, the reader doesn’t just sift through new ideas and philosophies in carefully packaged trifles designed to thrill even while delivering pedagogy. In literature, the reader doesn’t simply take in some beautiful prose and carefully worded text. Any or all of those things may occur, but in every novel, readers are silently invited into something more wonderful than any of that.
In literature, the reader is smuggled behind the eyes and into the head of a person wholly different from themselves—and often, into the heads of several persons. In literature, through a subtle mystery, we become other people while remaining ourselves. Our desires, interests, circumstances, personality, history, abilities, and beliefs are all altered. We are transformed temporarily. And as long as we can hold on to the memory of that experience, we can better relate to at least one kind of person who is not us. The more books we read and the more often, the better we will be able to relate to that which is alien to us. And the better we can relate, the better we can empathize. And the better we empathize, the better we may love—because empathy is the gateway to love and without it, your love will be hollow and ineffectual.