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Acquiring Empathy through Essays

by William Bradley

Tags: Literature, Essays,


Essays give us a record of someone else’s consciousness, and successful essayists inspire a sense of empathy in their readers.

I have several friends and relatives with whom I sometimes argue on social media. These are all decent people—loving parents, devoted spouses, supportive friends – but I suspect that many of them think I’m the most ridiculous bleeding heart they have ever met. I have been told more than once that my frequent Facebook or Twitter links to articles and opinion pieces concerned with issues like online misogyny, marriage equality, and racial profiling suggest that I’m obsessed with toeing a politically correct line in order to advertise my own sensitivity and enlightenment. I am, after all, a white heterosexual man.  These aren’t my battles, so why do I seem to take these issues so personally?  The glib answer—and the one I employ most often when people ask—is “decency,” but lately I have been wondering how and why my own sense of empathy has developed the way it has.  The answer, I think, is related to my interest in essays.

I know, I know. I’ve probably lost you. Everyone hates essays. Those five-paragraph compositions we were forced to write in school with topics like “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” or “What Flag Day Means to Me.” And truthfully, I never had much use for them myself when I was younger (in high school, after reading A Tale of Two Cities, we were assigned to write an essay chronicling our own “last words” a la Sydney Carton’s “It’s a far, far better thing…”—I wrote a narrative about mowing the lawn, then burned the bottom of the last page to make it look like I had spontaneously combusted).  Essays, we have been raised to believe, are dull, punishing things to read and to write. 

It wasn’t until college that I learned to love the essay. Not those five-paragraph yawn-inducers, but the truly great personal essays by the likes of Michele de Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf. Of course I never had the experience of serving in Her Majesty’s Indian Imperial Police, but reading George Orwell’s experiences in his essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” gave me some idea of what doing so was like, and why imperialism is such a terrible thing. I’ll never be a young woman falling in and out of love with New York City in the middle of the twentieth century, but I have some idea of what such a young woman went through as a result of reading Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.”

It’s impossible for us to live the lives of others, of course, but essays give us a record of someone else’s consciousness—the act of reading these essays and interacting with these minds on the page is the closest thing we have to telepathy in the real world. Part of the reason why I care so much about issues pertaining to racial justice is that reading James Baldwin’s experiences and thoughts in “Notes of a Native Son” and “Stranger in the Village” made the issue vividly real. These issues were personal for Baldwin, and thus became personal for me as a result of reading Baldwin. It’s likewise impossible to believe in homophobic caricatures of gay men’s predatory sexuality after reading an account of growing up gay as sensitive and affecting as Bernard Cooper’s “A Clack of Tiny Sparks.”  The idea that women who have abortions are by nature selfish or unreflective is belied by essays like Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day.” Similarly, unlike some of my liberal humanist friends, I know from reading David Griffith’s reflections on his Catholic faith in his essay collection A Good War is Hard to Find or Patrick Madden’s discussions on his own Mormon faith in his collection Quotidiana that there is nothing inherently reactionary or intolerant about subscribing to a religious faith.

Successful essayists inspire a sense of empathy in their readers. We may not necessarily agree with the essayist, or even find her likeable, but we at least come to understand her thoughts and point-of-view in a deep and significant way; thus, we come to understand other people in general in a deep and significant way. Those who seemed foreign or “other” to us become familiar, as recognizable as our own reflections in the mirror. And the manufactured divisions perpetuated by pundits and politicians—black and white, red state and blue state, us and them—are revealed as the simple-minded fictions that they are. Of course, reading literature in general has a similar effect—careful readers usually end up examining their own lives after reading Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or Tess Gallagher’s poem “The Hug”—but what I like about essays is the way they immediately connect us to other people who have really lived in this world. A careless reader can cast aside Tolstoy’s story as “merely made-up,” but no one can deny that E.B. White really existed, and really contemplated time and mortality on the trip he described in his essay “Once More to the Lake.” 

I’m not naïve. I’m not trying to argue that we’d live in a utopia if everyone read essays.  But I do think we’d be better off if we heeded the essayist’s reminder that we can find common ground with other people, if we look hard enough. Michele de Montaigne, the 16th century writer and philosopher who gave this form its name, observed that “Every man has within himself the entirety of the human condition.” Read an essay by the likes of Ira Sukrungruang, Eula Biss, Gayle Pemberton, or Jill Talbott every day or two, and you’ll find that idea easy to remember. If you’re anything like me, you might wind up becoming a more patient and compassionate person as a result.

William Bradley's work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and College English. Three of his essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and one,"The Bald and the Beautiful," was listed as a "Notable Essay of 2005" in that year's Best American Essays anthology. He lives in New York's North Country, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University and has recently finished revising his own essay collection. Read his list of favorite print and online sources for essays

Photo courtesy Bernard Goldbach, licensed under Creative Commons.

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Yes, aparamo, I think you do make sense, particularly when you talk about the idea that disagreement at least suggests engagement with the ideas offered by the essay. When I teach freshman composition, I always try to convince students that arguing isn't really about "winning" but about "building knowledge." But that's not really the type of argument modeled by TV pundits or talk radio gurus, and it's not really want we get in Facebook discussions with friends from high school, either. Rather, we just get a lot of vitriol and logical fallacies as one side tries to make the other look foolish. But reading essays-- or other forms of nonfiction with literary ambitions-- usually requires more engagement with what's actually being presented (as opposed to a red herring of strawman to dispense with neatly and easily). So hopefully even the reader who disagrees is clear about what she's disagreeing with, and has still thought of the essayist's ideas in significant and meaninful ways.

10/28/2013 2:10:12 AM

Dear William--as a writer of social journalism/social justice memoir/women's issues, I give readership empathy a lot of thought. It worries me that empathy is more ethical than literary in nature. One of the difficulties with the kind of activism I do in my books is that it is based on literary ethics and since empathetic reading is not a tangible thing, it can't be quantified, I'm left wondering whether or not the readers of my book have become empathetic. (empathetic reader loosely defined as a reader whose decision making in the world is affected by and more thoughtful as a result of reading my book.) When a reader opens a book, she is opening herself to a type of decision making which is inherently ethical--she has to decide whether or not she will engage with the stories on offer--and in so doing, she submits to the otherness, to a point of view different from her own. I agree with you in that of course there will be collusions as well as disagreements between the reader's values and those represented within the text. The way I see it, even if there are no collusions but only disagreements, the essayist has done her bit. By the time the reader wholeheartedly disagrees with the author, the writer has already accomplished a huge milestone, which is to engage with the human condition. Do I make sense?

10/27/2013 11:29:12 AM

Nicole-- your comment about engaging the senses reminded me of Cynthia Ozick's essay "She: A Portrait of the Essay as Warm Body," wherein she talks about how the essay "seduces agreement." As you say, nobody likes to be preached at-- I think that's why I don't care for much explicitly political writing right now. I don't think we have a George Orwell-- we don't even have a Christopher Hitchens anymore. The think that critics of creative nonfiction (and I don't really have a problem with that generic label) miss when they accuse us of self-centered navel-gazing is that good nonfiction actually does the exact opposite-- it may begin with the self, but it move outward, gets larger. Yes, Baldwin talks about his father's life and death, but in the same essay he observes "To smash something is the ghetto's chronic need." Good nonfiction isn't self-involved-- in fact, it's a guard against solipsism.

10/26/2013 1:03:51 PM

Dear William, I love this argument, especially in light of that latest finding in the journal journal Science which found that reading literary fiction promotes, “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The study finds no such correlation in readers of popular fiction or serious nonfiction. But what about creative nonfiction? This study was released during the week of the government shutdown, on the day my sister emails to tell me about her class of chemistry students. She teaches at the alternative high school—the one where teenage girls who get pregnant and want to keep their babies are sent. As she tries to teach them about hydrogen atoms, she stares out across the classroom into the gaping eyes looking back at her with only one concern: will WIC get shut down? What will my baby and I eat? She looked back at them with eyes that answered, not hydrogen. She changed her lesson to one about carbon. Researchers asked study participants to read passages from general nonfiction, popular fiction, and literary fiction and then were asked to fill out a brief survey. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between the literary- and genre-fiction readers,” wrote Juliane Chiaet in Scientific American. When my sister told her students what I wrote—Creative nonfiction—they laughed. But that’s just the point. In the gap between creative and nonfiction lies the rub. It is between the words where the imagination happens. The name creative nonfiction is as ridiculous as any attempt to codify genre. But I tell my own students, the ones who don’t bring their babies to class, the one who read War and Peace over the summer, that creative nonfiction is most interested in the in-between of the genres. It is interdisciplinary, hyphenated, bent. In creative nonfiction, you have to gather things up: hydrogen, carbon, diapers, WIC, governments, War and Peace and guide the reader to make a connection by offering a unifying image, a repeating phrase, a story about some kids with kids who are trying to bond with their babies while they learn about covalent bonds. “David Kidd, one of the authors of the study, said that “in popular fiction, really the author is in control and the reader has a more passive role,” wrote Pam Belluck in a blog post for The New York Times. “In literary fiction – Dostoyevsky, for example – “there is no single overarching authorial voice,” he said. “Instead, each character presents a different version of reality and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life,’” I told my student, the one who read War and Peace, that creative nonfiction is a kind of dialectic too. You have to inform, argue, persuade like you do in nonfiction. But no one likes to be preached at. So you engage their senses, like you do in fiction and poetry. You associate. You create a scene. You build a whole world for your reader, invite them in, and then tell them that not all governments are created equal. “Mind the gap,” you tell your student, who laughs because he’s been to London. He rode the Metro. He read War and Peace. “Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge, said, “I would have thought reading in general” would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education,’” Belluck continued. I asked my sister how I could help her students. I live in Flagstaff. She teaches in West Valley, Utah. The great gap of the Grand Canyon divides us. I thought about sending up formula. I thought I had some frozen breast milk tucked away in the back of my freezer. I wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House, explaining about these kids and WIC and some different kids, some with cancer, who were scheduled to be enrolled in clinical trials to combat their cancer. The studies were shut down. The Grand Canyon is shut down. The frozen milk had past its expiration date. My sister said it will be OK, the kids would figure it out. I changed the subject. Ask if she could watch my dog over Christmas. She felt sorry for me. She said yes even though her dog and my dog do not get along. The researchers still have a lot of questions. “There is much that the study does not address: How long lasting could such effects be? Would three months of reading Dickens and Austen produce effects that are larger, smaller or have no effect? Are the differences in scores all attributable to the type of fiction? Would the results hold if the same person read all the different types of material? And would it matter if the literary fiction was particularly difficult? The researchers did not use James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.’” There’s a gap between Dickens and Pynchon or Austen and Joyce. There’s a gap between Tom Clancy and Tom Pynchon. Seamus Heaney and J.K. Rowling. Malcolm Gladwell and Judith Krantz. But creative nonfiction, ridiculous genre title that it has been given, likes the gap. In between is where it revels. It draws out character. It creates a scene. It uses dialogue as much as any literary fiction and uses repetition and association as much as any poet. It reads Science, The Economist and John Boehner’s Twitter Feed. It is always in between, asking the reader to participate in this dialectic, making story out of facts, facts out of story, using the privilege of poetry to get away with it. Creative nonfiction means that I keep trying to figure out how to send some formula to my sister’s students. I emailed her a question about gaps between electrons and the nucleus in hydrogen molecules to see if I could finish the metaphor. She asked her students my question. With babies over their shoulders, or on their laps, or lying on their desks, they began to formulate an answer.