There are dozens of occasions I can recall curled up on a couch, heart pounding, eyes hot and watery, as I tried to subdue a wrenching pressure in my chest. It wasn’t because of anything that happened in my life, but because I was so vehemently involved in the life of someone else. I was absorbed in literary fiction, and there isn’t anything else I’ve been able to find in life that quite mimics that feeling. If you are a fiction-lover you know what I’m talking about.
Seeing through the eyes of fictional character in a book can’t be compared to watching a movie. Don’t get me wrong, I have laughed, cried and raged at characters on the big screen, but there is a huge difference between at the character and through the character. It’s impossible to see through a character’s eyes when you are staring at the character. Even with internal monologues scattered throughout the script, there isn’t any way to view things through the protagonist’s perspective in movies and television.
The word empathy is defined by as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” How many times a day do we identify with other people? As we are honking and yelling at cars in traffic, sighing at the person who is taking too long in the grocery line, or intentially ignoring the homeless person on the sidewalk, we are avoiding empathy. We are viewing life through a singular perspective…our own.
It’s easy to see why empathy is so important. It relieves some of the “Me! Me! Me!” thoughts that we inevitably have during the day. I’m not saying those thoughts need to be completely pulverized, (it’s human nature to worry about ourselves) but it can be important to see beyond ourselves as well. That’s where literary fiction comes in.
In a study conducted by The New School for Social Research in 2013, researchers found a correlation between reading fiction and empathy. It’s not that surprising when you think about it, but those who read fictional literary works were able to better identify what people were feeling when looking at their eyes. To me, this study made perfect sense when I consider the hours I’ve poured over the thoughts and emotions of others in books. It makes sense that seeing through a characters eyes instead of looking at a character might have made me more adept in seeing the struggles and emotions in others.
So, does reading make you a better person? Are you a better person if you can identify better with the emotions of others? Are you a better person if for a few extra moments in the day you pay attention to the overwhelmed eyes of the mother struggling with her children in line at the store, or if you are able to notice someone who is sad and can use a smile? I suppose that’s based on your own set of personal beliefs and values, whether empathy makes you a good person or not…but I like to think it does.