Empathy Challenged

“Writers don’t write from experience,” the poet Nikki Giovanni once said, “if you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

As an African-American, Giovanni might feel an urge to communicate the seemingly incommunicable—what it is like to be in her skin. She may also feel the complementary urge to live in someone else’s. And to approach understanding anyone, you need to open yourself to others’ understanding. Maybe you have to believe people can be understood and ought to be. At least it’s a start.

In my literature classes, we encounter authors with varied and interesting experiences, many of whom focus on characters’ joys and doubts, crises and triumphs—in other words, their humanity. Some of my students share that humanity. They hunger for characters who will help them see the world from a different angle. They talk about characters as if they lived next door (but rarely stepped into the light), and they wonder what happened to them after the last page.

They ask charming questions, and harping that someone created these neighbors, friends, or curious strangers—that they aren’t real—threatens empathy worth protecting.

But some students aren’t ready to empathize. “Why are we reading another fill-in-the-blank book?” someone will ask, “I don’t care about fill-in-the-blank.” Some say, “I don’t like books that have fill-in-the-blank in them,” implying I’ve stepped out of bounds in asking them to do something they don’t like.

I’m not sure how to answer. They’re right—if you can’t put yourself in a book, how will it reach you?

At the same time, I can’t see the value in reading about someone exactly like me, even if I could find such a book. Reading is paradoxical. On one hand, we hope to identify with the story and with the people who populate it. On the other hand, our own experience mirrored back offers nothing new, no reason to read at all. My best students hope to gain experience they haven’t gained in life. Their hope goes a long way toward fulfilling their aspiration.

The advertising bathing us day after day discourages empathy, teaching us to want relief, not challenge. We’ve lost much of our appetite for discomfort and quickly exhaust patience with quirky characters. Nick Carraway is a wimp. Romeo needs to stop being such a drama queen. How could George stand Lennie so long—shouldn’t he put him in an institution where they can care for him more properly?

I’d like to get over my cynicism about the future of reading. Self-centered perspectives seem a natural part of growing up, and I certainly remember the fun of shooting down great works. You can cajole most students into recognizing a book’s merit. All is not lost.

But I struggle more than I used to. How do you teach someone to care? How do you teach them to look for themselves in characters they consider unlikable?

Once, in an essay on The Catcher in the Rye, I asked, “How do you think J. D. Salinger hopes we will feel about Holden? How does your reaction to Holden compare to Salinger’s aim and how does that help you assess the book’s success?”

Many students recognized Salinger daring us to like Holden. In making Holden so troublesome, a few argued, he tested our capacity to face our own flaws. Others, however, complained about Holden’s dated expressions, his dated, no longer shocking behavior, his annoying verbal ticks, his unbearable imaginary troubles, his hypocrisy. They suggested Holden ought to stop feeling sorry for himself and just get on with life, asking, “What does he have to complain about really?”

One student put it, “Who wants to understand him? Who cares?”

I wrote in the margin, in my quietest handwriting, “What about the death of Holden’s brother?” and “Do you think Holden’s parents are giving him the support he needs by sending him to a series of distant boarding schools?” and, finally, when my patience wore thin, “Aren’t your judgments of Holden just as harsh as his judgments of others? Can you see a little of yourself in him?”

No reader can empathize with every character. I understand that. The vehemence of rejection, however, sometimes scares me. The study and appreciation of literature may require empathy, but doesn’t life require it more?

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, J. D. Salinger, Laments, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

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