Reading and Empathy

You might have heard the phrase “Man is the animal who laughs,” a definition from Robert Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s not a bad definition for human beings, though it’s wrong — there are other animals that laugh too. A better definition might be that “Human is the animal that reads.” Think for just a minute on the power of written words. Here I am, typing in my basement on a rainy evening in September 2016, and yet I’m talking to you on a bright sunny day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, or maybe I’m speaking to you, a lonely grad student in the year 3016, looking for evidence of how people lived in the ancient past. But time travel is maybe the least of the gifts that reading gives us.

As Christians we are at least partly a People of the Book, as our Muslim friends have said, and think what that book gives us: not only communication with poets, sages, kings, and heroes of a distant past; but the chance to see the world through the eyes of other human beings that have lived in it. Not just the world as it is, either, but the world of the mind — that landscape of joy and grief and prophecy. C.S. Lewis wrote that reading extends our being:

We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.

I’m talking about reading, but all art does this in different ways. It is, perhaps, its function, or its most practical side effect. Art trains us in empathy. And it seems to me that we are suffering lately from an acute lack of empathy. There is a reason that totalitarian governments tend to suppress or control art — they are not only battling to control bodies and territory, but that same landscape of the mind: without the imagination, there is no empathy. Without our capacity to live in the minds of other selves, we are alone. Alone, we are helpless.

So, People of the Book, I urge you to read (and paint and sing and dance, but especially to read). Read widely and openly. Engage with 1000 other selves that you might enlarge the territory of your being. And if you would combat the narrow life of fear and hatred with empathy, give someone who needs it a good book, and teach them to see with 1000 eyes too.

As Professor Lews says:

[In literary experience], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Read “C.S. Lewis on Why We Read” on Maria Popova’s incredible blog, Brain Pickings.

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