Wednesday, April 6, 2011
E is for Empathy
If I had to pick one word to describe why I think writing (or theater, music, painting, photography, or any other kind of art) is important, that word would be empathy. In my mind, the greatest purpose of art is to help us understand and appreciate the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another human being.
Think about it. After reading a good book you have a sense of someone else, through both the characters and the tone and voice of the author. We feel their pains and joys, and understand and sympathize with their flaws, sometimes major ones. If I met a greasy, creepy, rude, hook-nosed middle-aged man I would be nervous and antagonistic. But after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, maybe not. I might try to understand.
Each book we read (each play we see, painting we view, song we hear) elicits an emotional response that helps us understand the emotions and thought process of others in a way we would not have been able to without that personal experience. We are so stuck in our own heads, and art is a way to help us out. I have not had experience with intense betrayal or rejection, but after Jennifer Hudson and Dreamgirls, I know better what it is and even a little bit what it feels like. If I had a friend get cheated on, this would help me empathize.
Another thing. If I was the one cheated on or betrayed, I would have seen it before, and might have some perspective. I would have seen someone cope, and know that coping is possible. Perhaps most importantly, I would know I wasn't alone. C. S. Lewis said, "We read to know we are not alone," and that is absolutely true. I am just beginning Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and already the main characters self-consciousness, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy have helped me in my own struggles with those kinds of things. Every book gives you someone who understands.
And you can give it right back. Art helps us properly appreciate the good and understand the bad in others. This is why I think writing is such a noble profession. To create art that can make this connection between people, we have to be utterly and vulnerably honest with ourselves and get the gut core of our feelings and thoughts. Its hard to explain, but it puts a mirror up to the reader and the human race.
I know this is a bit philosophical, and a bit of a nebulous idea, but I hope it kind of makes sense. To put it as simply as I can, art is meant to help us understand each other. In that cause, happy writing :)