about me, books i read, in my opinion, love and relationships

Learning Empathy From Books

I have been reading for as long as I could remember. It began with the “Run Bantay Run” series that most Filipino children go through when we’re learning to read and then I jumped to fairy tales, Sweet Valley, Nancy Drew, R.L Stine, John Grisham and it has gone on and on. My love affair with books began at a young age–and I am grateful for it, for a lot of reasons. Books are my friends. They keep me company during long haul trips, interminable queues, solo meals, sleepless nights, even salon and spa visits. But more than just something to do, books (just like words) fuel my existence.
Not my books. This is my sister’s collection. This is just one portion of a large wall shelf.

People read books for many reasons but apparently, studies reveal that reading cultivates empathy. Reading fiction helps a reader understand what a person is going through–what he is feeling or thinking, because that’s what every reader does when he’s trying to get to know characters in books. Those who read will understand what I mean. When you open a story and go deep into the lives of the characters (especially that of the narrator) you become in tune with him. You see what he sees, you feel what he feels, smell what he smells, hear what he hears. It sounds absurd for those those who do not read, but this will be true for all bookworms who like myself, faced a Dementor, fell in love in Rosings Park, curiously spied on Boo Radley and finally saw color like Jonas. I have been to many places, met many people, have gone through unimaginable tragedies and triumphs with every turn of a page. Books are entertainment, primarily, but for people like myself–it is really so much more.
You know, I sometimes get truly invested in the lives of the characters that when I am away from the book, I feel a knot in my chest that I couldn’t explain and then I realize I am worried because Katniss Everdeen just lost Peeta to the careers. When a book ends disturbingly, I often stay motionless for hours, in despair. So similarly, I jump in elation when the character feels the same.
Empathy vs Sympathy
There’s always an argument about these two. Although it is not automatic, it is easier to sympathize with people. To say “I feel sorry for you” or “I hope you feel better” require much less and are often cliche responses to other people’s grief. But it is definitely another thing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes–that is empathy. When you go to lengths to actually understand what is going on, beyond the surface, you are hitting the core (and so you are getting the picture as a whole).
As a professional in the healthcare industry, I am called not only to sympathize with patients’ needs, but to apply empathy when dealing with their concerns, as well. When a patient comes in, you see him more than his toothache–you listen to depth of the complaint. And whether I am working with a child who is kicking and slapping my arm, screaming “I don’t like you anymore!” or a grown man expressing his fear of injections–I have to take off my coat, sit on the chair, and imagine it from their side.

In the real world, away from books and beyond my professional life (as a dentist), I have come to realize that empathy has allowed me to forgive easily. More than just branding people according to their actions (which I admit is always my initial reaction–being human), I am able to step away and compartmentalize my emotions. I scrutinize people and events, like I do characters in books. I am always decoding things–and yes, it could be quite exhausting to be me, but lucky for many of you this helps me to understand people (and people’s actions) more. Like if you hurt me, of course I’ll hate you, but I’ll understand why you did it or what about your core (and story) made you do it. Eventually, I’ll forgive you just as readers forgave Severus Snape–because that’s how it is and that’s in my core too.

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.  (Source: Scientific American)

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