I Can Relate: The Relationship Between Reading & Empathy

Why do you read? 

No, seriously, think about it. Why do you read? Do you read for school, because you have to and you’ll get behind on your classwork if you don’t? Do you read to stay informed with current events? Or do you read for fun? Do you read because you want an outlet of relaxation after a long week? Perhaps you crave a fictitious escape.

Everyone reads for different reasons. In fact, no two people will pick up the same book, sit down, and have the same reading experience, nor will they get the same things out of it. We all have different interests, and more than that, we have different experiences. Even if we pick up a book to detach ourselves from our daily lives, our lives are still reflected in the way we read, the quotes that stick out most, the books we love the most. 

Think about your favorite books. Have you ever flipped through random chapters in a treasured book, thinking, “Hey, I can relate”? Perhaps the characters and experiences you resonated with so deeply were why that book stuck out to you. Or perhaps you’re the opposite, seeking out books that are the exact opposite of your life.

There’s quite a debate — one that has seemingly always existed — about what is appropriate and acceptable to write about. There’s always controversy over violence and gore in fiction, especially those targeted at younger demographics. Diving deeper into current events, world issues, pressing concerns such as racism and homophobia are also often frowned upon because of the controversial nature of some topics. There is more talk about language and how it should be used in the public eye. Trauma is something everyone wants to steer clear from. 

Many people believe we should create utopias in our fictitious work. Of course, that’s not the exact words they would use, but they suggest that we should steer away from writing about anything remotely offensive, controversial, triggering, etc. At first glance, this seems like a really great thing to do. This way, no one gets upset, right? 

But wait. Why would you read about a utopia? 

Utopias are perfect, meaning, no conflict. Basic, generic plot structure requires conflict, in order to build tensions and excitement so readers will want to find out what happens next. With the basic “plot mountain”, this conflict would be resolved, but the beautiful variety of fiction available to read includes far more than resolved conflicts. Cliffhangers, unhappy endings, and other bittersweet disappointments await. Reading a utopian world would be playing it perfectly safe, but it would also be absolutely predictable and lack all the excitement that reading should be. Conflicts, disappointments, thrillers, and cliffhangers are what really bring a reader to violent sobs, happy dances, and piercing screams. Conflicts — and often the way they are tackled and fixed — are what truly shake and move a reader.

Incorporating current events, sensitive subjects, or controversial topics into your writing is a scary thing. But there’s nothing more powerful than reading something that reflects one of your darkest moments and realizing that you’re not alone. You sob along with the character as they have to deal with things similar to your own experiences. Sometimes, there may not be a happy ending, and it forces us to deal with reality’s own hidden problems. Sometimes, the character succeeds in their fight. Sometimes, there is a happy ending, and this instills hope into readers that maybe their own life will be okay in the end. Diversity makes everyone happy. We feel seen and heard when we read characters in books that look like us and are raised in similar environments to us. But diversity is not only in terms of race, culture, religion… diversity also lies in experience. Sensitive topics must be treated with extreme care when writing about, but they should not be shut out completely. No matter how much you want to build a fictitious utopia, the real world will never be that. There will always be people struggling in reality, wondering why there are never any book characters reflecting their own feelings and struggles…

It’s not just a wonderful experience to read about something you personally relate to. Reading increases our empathy and compassion! Perhaps you’ve heard the quote: “a reader lives a thousand lives before they die.” Through fiction, readers are granted the opportunity to live in the heads of a variety of characters, learning the thought process behind each one and perhaps getting to see why each character is the way they are. Although fiction, this experience allows us to understand people better. We may not always read of characters that resonate with ourselves, but sometimes we even see others we know in the characters we read. Maybe you can see a bit of your mother in the main character of the book you’re reading, or maybe a bit of the barista who always takes your order? 

Although many people will never experience certain traumas and experiences, reading about them can help us understand better. You can learn about wars in a history class, but simply hearing the words will never compare to being in the middle of the bloodshed. You can hear about car accidents, and none of it will compare to standing on the side of the road as you stare at the wreck that was once your car. You can read a headline about the murder of a person, but how could that compare to watching someone get murdered with your own eyes, or being the person in danger yourself? 

Our society likes to make lots of edits. It likes to shut things out. It likes to hide what isn’t pretty. But that simply isn’t possible in real life. Sometimes writing the ugliest, most horrific, over-the-top, graphic scenes are necessary. Readers will cringe, readers will shout, readers will cry and squirm and turn away. That is exactly the reaction we want. It’s not supposed to be comfortable — the reality isn’t always comfortable. Even though a written scene still does not compare to the real experience, this uncomfortable feeling is the first step to true empathy. 

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself in another’s shoes because you simply have no idea what that experience could ever be like. Reading fiction may help you get a little bit closer. 

Published by Brooke Xu

Brooke is a high school student and has been creating stories since she learned how to pick up a pen. She is a tutor for the NC Virtual Peer Tutoring Center where she was previously a member of the Writing Center. In addition, she is a member of the Wake County Public Libraries teen volunteering program, has been a teacher assistant at Cary Chinese School, and participates in volunteering events which include educational activities for kids. In her free time, Brooke enjoys journaling, reading, singing, and raising plants.

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