Acquiring Empathy through Essays

| 10/25/2013 11:28:00 AM

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. 

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