Mary Patterson Thornburg Ponders the Connection Between Reading and Empathy...
Lauren Olamina, a character in Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, is "hyperempathic" --she shares other people's feelings to an extreme degree. If she's near someone hurt or injured, she feels their pain so strongly that she becomes physically ill, even passes out. When I first read that novel, I assumed Lauren's disability was a fantastic exaggeration, because the book is, after all, near-future science fiction. But a year or two later I learned that someone I know in the real world has very much the same symptoms. Empathy is a good thing, but too much of it can be a curse.
So, of course, is too little empathy. People who can't share pain, joy, excitement, sorrow, or fear with others are to be pitied. They're shut off, locked inside themselves. It must be a strange, lonely existence. A lack of empathy is one of the features of sociopathy or narcissism. And, sadly, I've recently read that a surprising number of young people suffer from this condition.
Empathy must have been hardwired into most human brains, maybe even before we developed much spoken language. Reading one another's emotions is a survival trait. It must have helped primitive people to know when someone sensed danger, or was in pain, or was close to getting violently angry. (In fact, come to think of it, it's helpful to know things like that now, sophisticated as we are--or think we are!) Empathy would grow stronger in people living in close proximity, in small communities and extended families. Maybe there's less opportunity to cultivate empathy, now that many of us live mostly in very small family groups and don't even know our neighbors. We're too isolated, and too busy, to read others' emotions.
Are you wondering where I'm going with this? It's here: I think one way we develop and strengthen empathy, and learn to deal with it, is by reading. When we read for pleasure--particularly when we read and enjoy fiction, or well-written history and biography--we open other worlds and communities and step into them. We can't help identifying with one or more of the characters. When I read a thriller, I feel the hero or heroine's unease, I'm on the edge of my seat when danger closes in. When I read a good romance, I fall in love right along with the main character. Their points of view become my point of view.
With a movie or a good play, the actors identify with the characters, but there's almost always a certain distance between the audience and what's happening on the stage or the screen. We see, literally, that the characters are other people, not ourselves. With a good book, there's no distance. The characters move into our minds. With the best books, we are the characters--at least for a while.
This, I think, is why we hate to come to the end of a really good book. For us, it's the end of a world we been living in. We are ourselves again, but we're a little changed. We've shared the feelings, the emotional reality, of someone in that world, and they've become part of who we are.