Commentary: Cultivating empathy through reading

By Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick

As a child, I consumed stories voraciously: tales of children on the prairie, runaways hidden in a museum, and siblings who find another world behind thick fur coats.

 Like most children, I was encouraged in this habit and other ways of cultivating my imagination, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that one of the benefits of imagination became clear – the importance of imagination in cultivating empathy, even for those who have different lives than ours.

 Reading allows us a unique chance to enter into another person’s story. It trains us to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” as that great literary hero Atticus Finch extols his daughter to do. When we read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we glimpse the difficulty of working toward justice in a prejudice society.

 “Little House on the Prairie,” “Little Women,” and other classic works show us, among other things, how widely families can vary and how these early experiences shape our lives. Anne Frank’s diary and Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” offer a view into the humanity of a people oppressed.

 Formed by these literary experiences, we face the world a different way. We are moved by those who live far from family when their first baby is born; we empathize with tornado victims, the homeless, the jobless and the immigrant.

 Though we can never fully know their hardships, we are able to imagine what it must be like for the Christians of the Middle East to leave their homeland, persecuted by radical Muslims. In short, we can envision the point of view of someone who is not us, even of someone who has lived a different life.

 Once we are able to envision the life of another person, we are moved to action by their difficulties. We donate household items to Saint Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities upon seeing the difficulties of refugees, tornado victims and the impoverished. We help the woman in a difficult pregnancy as we are able, providing food, clothing or shelter for her and her child. In the end, imagination shapes our character, leading us to live more virtuous lives.

 Jesus himself used stories, the parables, to teach and guide our actions. Through these stories, we are able to enter into the point of view of someone else – and, more importantly, examine our own actions.

 In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus offers us an examination of conscience about being a good neighbor. We can see ourselves as the traveler, robbed and beaten by beggars, and in need of help. If we are honest with ourselves, we can identify with the priest and the Levite who pass him by with our excuses, revealing our failure to love our neighbors.

 We see the love of the Good Samaritan, who sacrifices so much of his time and money to help a man who he doesn’t know. We imagine the difficulties of such a love of neighbor, which makes us better able to live like the Good Samaritan.

 Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance writer for the Sooner Catholic.