An Apprenticeship in Empathy

I started to write a novel a couple weeks ago. Armed with a copy of John Gardner's creative writing bible, The Art of Fiction, words came pretty easily for the first couple pages as I fleshed out the main character. I liked her. She had a history. She had an affliction of her own making. She was poised to take action and correct herself.

When I started to create other characters with whom she might interact, the story suddenly became very boring to write. I needed these peripheral characters to perform certain simple functions in order to move the story forward, but I wanted to concentrate on my main character, who frankly, was a bit more like myself. As a consequence, my larger-than-life heroine was wandering around in a city populated by mannequins, and it wasn't working.

In his chapter titled "Common Errors," Gardner identifies several faults of the soul that may plague the beginning writer. Here I found a description of my malady:

The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters (as he enters deeply into the feelings of real people). In a word, the writer is frigid.

"As he enters deeply into the feelings of real people" was the kick in the gut for me.

Did I enter deeply into the feelings of real people? More often I considered other people's feelings as slightly irritating obstacles to work my way around, and/or placate.

For example, I recently participated in a raging internet debate. I took for granted that my side of the debate was founded on the highest ideals, so I had only to convert my opponent to my way of thinking, or, if that could not be done (as likely it couldn't), then to shame him with his error.

I'd written out several biting responses and the only thing between me and the publish button was a sneaking suspicion that I might hurt his feelings. What's more, I thought he deserved it, suffering as he did from an invincible erroneous conscience—the kind of thinking that cannot be converted in spite of the truth that's obvious to everyone else. It's difficult to assume that anyone else has pure intentions when we mistakenly believe that we alone have the monopoly on right thinking. So I kept rewriting my response in attempts to hurt his feelings more subtly, in a way that didn't indict me as the despicable person I know I'm capable of being.

Gardner's chapter came to me at just the right time. Rather than publishing my rebuttal, I attempted to "enter deeply into the feelings" of my opponent as a creative writing exercise. I imagined some extenuating circumstances that might have formed his opinions. I imagined for him a face, a body, and a family, so that he wasn't just a disembodied typeface on my computer. I imagined what it might be like to believe in his particular opinion so strongly that he would engage in raging internet debates in order to defend it. And finally, I imagined what it would be like to be him, regarding himself and his opinions as highly as I regard myself and my opinions.

Several years ago, I read a blog post from my friend Sally Thomas, in which she confessed that even after many years of marriage and rearing four children, "I don't really love anybody but myself." That statement has gone down in my mind as one of the most purifying and humbling statements I've ever read on the internet.

If self-love could be a real struggle for someone whom I respect, whose writing I admire, someone whose life also resembles certain elements of my own, then maybe self-love is a bigger issue for me than I'd like to believe. Maybe I really do only love myself. I don't even know the depths of my self-interest or its capabilities. I lie to myself in order to hide it. I sin in self-interest even as I long to do good.

Maybe the fault of the soul that plagues me is not just a reluctance to think how other people might think, but a deeper, more rooted and brutal self-love that excludes others altogether. Emotional frigidity is not solely a problem for writers. It's a problem for anyone who desires holiness, and there is no help for it but God.

After confessing my own frigidity, I went to the tabernacle that's situated under an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for my penance, mostly because it's in a very good little nook. I considered the Sacred Heart image and it seemed like a good antidote to my selfish heart—a heart crucified and bleeding with love for others. "Jesus meek and humble of heart, make my heart more like yours."

Having a heart that bleeds for all of humanity means attempting, through prayer, to acquire some of the all-seeing benevolence with which God views the world. Then thinking well of others does not mean having a "pollyanna outlook," blind to error and trusting against common wisdom that everyone's intentions are always pure and without self-interest. Rather, it's recognizing that others struggle with the same self-concern that I do, have the same need for redemption, are often blind to their own fault as I am, and need prayers, pity, and the divine mercy of God, just as I do. Everyone struggles with sin, and therefore, everyone deserves a bit of the gentleness that I tend to reserve only for myself.

Practicing the art of empathy in real life—entering deeply into the feelings of others—is a first step in a writer's apprenticeship. It's also a spiritual practice, in which we strive to view others as God views them. Only then can we aspire to the kind of omniscience that authorship requires.