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A Thought on Empathy

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As most of you know, I’m a writer.

You know, short stories.

Books.

Blog articles.

All that stuff.

And if you aren’t familiar with writing as a profession, you should know that it is very difficult and time consuming. Because the act of writing doesn’t usually look like this:

 

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Most of it looks like this:

 

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That usually goes on from thirty minutes to an hour if I’m lucky, but what usually comes out of it are good sentences. You know, it was only a few years ago that I would do this and the result would only be about a paragraph long.

Three hours of work for one measly paragraph. This is why my book has taken/is taking such a long time.

But anyway, I have this profession where I become continually exhausted while isolating myself in a room, go through all these kinds of emotional whirlwinds (as you would from dealing with fictional characters) and at some point you have to wonder why you’re doing this at all.

Like, why do I write?

I’ll tell you right now that it isn’t because I wanted to be a writer. I got into this because I wanted to tell stories. Writing simply presented itself as the best way for me to do that. And also because the act of writing is–for me at least–it’s sort of like playing music or free styling music; the moment to moment thrill of hitting a new note, discovering something about myself, my characters, humanity, usually all at once, frankly.

And one of the gifts that comes with the craft is that you naturally begin to develop a sense of empathy. That is, an understanding of people, or the human condition in general.

And that’s because of the fact that when I deal with my characters, Lily, Isaac, Lynn, Chelsea, Terrence, to name a few, I have to treat them like real people.

I have to take them seriously.

Because if I don’t, neither will my readers.

And the thing is, when you’re working with characters, you quickly learn that you can’t direct their life because that never really works. Not if you’re trying to create something good. It’s like trying to tell your children to be something they’re not, because that’s always worked out well, hasn’t it?

And once they feel comfortable behaving like themselves, you begin to see them clearly. And because they are your characters, you naturally want to accept who they are as individuals so that they can act comfortably and authentically when you are writing them. Their successes, their faults, their prejudices, their woes, their love and lusts and joy and overall experience that they’ve had with their life.

And a very interesting thing that I’ve come to notice recently, is that when I hear on the news about, let’s say, a murderer, my first inclination is to think, “Well why the hell did they do that?” You know, like, the judgy, incredulous side of me slamming down on their evil.

But recently I’ve had a follow up thought that goes like, “Well why the hell did they do that?” Like, really, why?” What led them to this?

What brought them to this point?

I began to realize how often I fail to see people as people. If we hear on the news about a murderer, we think first and foremost that they are a murderer. If we hear about a rapist or a pedophile, we think first and foremost that they are a rapist or pedophile. Or if we hear about a saint or a politician, we think first and foremost that they are just that. When in reality, we are all just people.

We may do good or bad things from time to time, but in the end, it’s just because we are human. Being human doesn’t justify wrongful acts, and it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be accountable for their actions.

Recognizing the humanity of other people allows you, the observer, to have a more emphatic view of how to treat them.

When all you know about someone is the fact that they volunteered during and earthquake in Haiti, it’s easy to picture them just as a good hearted person, just as when all you know about someone is the fact that they raped somebody, it’s easy to see them as simply devious, or evil.

They become one-dimensional characters who play no other part in the world aside from their current actions. But as a writer, I know that there is no such thing as a one-dimensional human being.

I’m not saying that I don’t generalize or judge people–in fact I do that all the time.

People do that.

But I think in order for us to grow and contribute to making the world a better place, we need to exercise our empathy, and not just with those whom we feel deserve it.

Developing yourself in this way doesn’t just help others. It doesn’t even do that directly.

I think first in foremost, it helps us live well.

And I think that’s something we’re all interested in.

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