Empathy – Diversity class

Today I’m blogging about the E-word.


You know, that ability to see things from another point of view. To understand and at least temporarily share someone else’s feelings, even if that someone else is outwardly very different from yourself. A lot has happened recently. Parents jerked through social media because a mother dared to be less than perfect at the Cincinnati zoo. A convicted rapist earning a six-month sentence in spite of the impassioned statement from his victim. And many people still unwilling to put even the slightest restrictions on guns in spite of the massacre of 49 innocents in Orlando (which some people who have dared to call themselves Christian ministers have actually celebrated) and the most recent accidental shooting death of a child by his sibling.

When people can’t feel empathy they too often end up pouring on the blame. Because if a victim is somehow to blame for what happened, if it isn’t random or otherwise completely undeserved, then they are safe. Nothing like that will ever happen to them. Empathy involves compassion and caring and the realization that “there but for the grace of God…”

I have a quote from Purple Heart recipient Charlene Lauderdale, a retired master sergeant in the United States Air Force. She was also born with both female and male anatomy. After living most of her life as a man, she is now legally a woman faced with all the challenges the transition represents. Instead of the walk a mile in someone else’s shoes cliche, I will use her words:

You never know until you step up to the plate and swing at the ball coming at you.

See, it’s not about feeling sympathy or approval. It’s about understanding.

Last year at one of my adult Sunday School class sessions, the subject of Ferguson Missouri and the Michael Brown came up. One member of the group made a statement saying he could never understand how anyone could ever try to hit a police officer for any reason.
Never understand.

I’m not going to pretend I know the right or wrong or the final truth about thing that have happened or are happening around the United States, or the world for that matter.   But I know that anyone content to sit in a comfortable chair, drink coffee and say “I’ll never understand” and let that be the end of things, lacks something. They don’t have the ability–or the desire–to consider the possibility that other individuals might look at the world and see something different, even hostile and fearsome.

Then I saw a call from a teacher looking for books to use with her elementary classes, books specifically designed to help teach kids  empathy. I told her that all she needed was to get any book written by someone who is different from them about people different from them. Anyone who lives in a different social class, race, ethnicity, religion, ability level or even physical location. Hand them books that show these characters facing all kinds of life challenges. Let the kids step through the book like they would open a door and feel the character’s motives, issues, thoughts, goals and emotions. Experience their sorrows and triumphs. Become someone different from themselves.

A good book can be the perfect empathy training ground.  Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley has said:

…reading more fiction enables you to understand other people better.  Fiction is about exploring a range of circumstances and interactions and characters you’re likely to meet.  Fiction is not a description of ordinary life; it’s a simulation. …fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations…

Fiction allows our minds to occupy another space, another body. Unfortunately, too many of us waste the opportunity and only read books about people who are like ourselves.  We take a big, diverse world and make it small with book after book about people who are basically the same: white, middle class or wealthy, primarily suburban. Little or no empathy for someone outside your current circle of knowledge is required or promoted and opportunities are lost.

I believe that books featuring Heroes or Heroines from all places and walks of life can have stories that bring something to enrich us all. That characters who are neither rich nor middle class can share their form of the universal story with readers, and in the process, enhance the readers’ lives. Those books can teach readers they do not have to condone an individual’s actions, but that understanding is the path toward a better future.

If you don’t think representation is important to kids, just look at this video:

That’s why I write diverse books, and put my heart and soul into the effort to create both a sympathetic and accurate depiction of characters from various cultures and backgrounds.  It’s also why I teach a class for writers who want to write about characters that are different from themselves.

It’s not an easy task. If done wrong, an author can do immeasurable harm to readers of all backgrounds and may promote stereotypes. Their words can the concept of empathy if their readers end up feeling, “Everyone knows that’s what those people are like.”  And people from the group can feel victimized when seeing themselves portrayed as a caricature.

My class is for authors who want to do the work needed to do a good job understanding and portraying someone else. And, in the process, developing more than a little empathy themselves.

I want to thank you for reading this long-winded blog post.

If you can handle more, consider taking my online class,  Adding The Spice Of Diversity To Your Writing class being held in July 2016.

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