From Sarah, With Joy

Writer of all things kid lit.

Here there be kid poems.

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 :)

Sarah Allen


  1. Edward Titchener introduced the term “empathy” in 1909 into the English language as the translation of the German term “Einfühlung” or “feeling into”. Initially, the word meant to feel your way into works of art and nature. It is only more recently that it became common to talk of 'empathising' with another person. I do think it is key to all discussions on art and literature.

  2. Hi Sarah ... your phrase "We are so stuck in our own heads" .. is so true ... but the other challenge is getting people to realise that - they may have read about a particular aspect ... but it won't resonate when the time comes, as they've taken no time to evaluate the experiences they've seen or read about.

    I agree we definitely empathy for others ... life is very different for many - which is not obvious on the outside ..

    Good thoughts - and thanks for popping over to say 'Hi' .. Hilary

  3. Oh yes, very nice post and great points. We have to see all the facets of all our characters in our novels, and empathizing with people helps. I went to a conference once where a workshop exercise was to think of a recent argument we'd had, then write it FROM THE OTHER PERSON'S POV. Yikes! Very eye-opening. :)

  4. There is such wisdom in this post! I especially like the line about how each work of art elicits an emotional response that helps us to understand each other. It's also interesting that you suggest we learn how to cope with difficulty through works of art. I hadn't thought about it before, but you're right!

  5. Great post. Excellent points taken and the illustration is so fitting.


  6. May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Let's Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion


  7. It's so interesting that you wrote this right now. My mom passed away recently, and I am suddenly driven to find out more about certain events in her life in order to write a story around them. It's all about empathy - understanding the events of her life to understand her better, and keeping her memory alive through writing! Well-done.

  8. Thank you all for your feedback and thoughts. Aine, that is fantastic information, thank you for sharing. And Edwin, I just posted to the facebook site. Thank you for that opportunity.

    Melissa, I'm glad this is a fitting post for you. I hope the writing goes well. I wish you peace and comfort.

  9. Absolutely agreed! I was talking to a friend recently about short stories versus novels. He said he dislikes novels because he wants the story to unfold rapidly so he can move on to the next. I said that's the antithesis of what I'm looking for, which is to see the world through someone's eyes. Novels are a better mechanism to that than (most) short stories, IMO.

    Regardless of my preference, stories, books and blog entries are all pathways into the mind of the writer. I discovered recently that it can be a little discomfitting when someone thanks you for allowing them to see so clearly into your brain and help them understand their own thoughts . . . but isn't that why I'm writing to begin with?

    Words and hugs are the bridges that connect us. IMO. ;)

  10. Excellently worded! I even feel that often people start to only read or watch things that they agree with and this impedes the ability for them to have empathy for something/someone different themselves. This just adds proof to how art can shape a person for better or for status quo. I must admit I find it hard but I force myself to read/watch/view art in various forms I disagree with or people I disagree with because I believe that empathy is more important than who is right or wrong.

  11. thanks Sarah, I reposted it as well so that it's on the wall of our supporters and will get wider coverage.

  12. Wow! What a fantastic post..It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to learn! I agree that art is all about empathy. Every work of art helps us to understand each other a little more. I didn't know the orgin of the word before..thanks Aine Tierney! As for the debate about short stories versus novels..I think that each is a distinctive discipline and art by itself..they can both be significant and hold meaning and beauty..just different ways to convey a message..different stories beg to be told in different ways..I love this blog! Peace everyone!

  13. Hi - What a great E. I agree that art helps us feel . . . more. It gives us a greater capacity for every emotion.

  14. Great post! I have never thought of it like that and I find your words very true.

  15. Sarah, would you believe I recently started a Facebook community for Empathic Writers? I just shared your post on our wall, and invite you and your readers to join us!!/empathicwriter

  16. I love reading but I never thought about it from the standpoint you presented. Writers do open a whole new world to us.

  17. Excellent post. I definitely appreciate the empathy that I feel when I'm a reader and it bothers me a little if I'm not able to make that connection with the main character, especially in first person. Empathy is very important.

  18. You make perfect sence.Empathy is what makes us human and art is what gives our humanity form. Lovely post.

  19. Very wise words.
    Also, I love love love Rebecca! When I was 14, Mrs. Danvers gave me the willies for weeks. Have fun sleeping with your nightlight on!

  20. Excellent post!

    That is definitely one of the big reasons why I enjoy writing. I get to explore thoughts and feelings that might not necessarily be my own and by that, I get to see the world from a different perspective.


  21. I couldn't agree more, Sarah. We read and write to enter into other people's worlds and empathy is at the heart of it. I'm here' via Aine's blog and very pleased to meet you.

  22. Love this post, and so glad to see you're participating in the a-z challenge - a familiar face! lol I love it when there's something about a character you can empathize with, but what I really love is those rare characters who feel like they were written just for you, that they almost ARE you, and you didn't know anyone else had those weird little quirks or insecurities or acted that way. One of the many, many reasons I love to read so much, and also why I love write because I can create those characters myself with the hopes that people will empathize and maybe even someday think I wrote those characters just for them.

  23. yes, when we live from our head, rather than our heart, it makes it challenging to empathize. Pay attention and you can begin to discern from where the words flow.

  24. Hi Sarah, I found your "empathy" post through Junebug. What an excellent writer you are. And of course being a Harry Potter fan too (of the books) I understand fully your comment about the greasy character. It is so easy to judge others rather than to emphathise with them.

  25. Sarah, this is awesome.
    I love the alphabet thing you're doing. That's very creative.

    Also, I just want you to know that I absolutely LOVE this post. And I agree whole-heartedly :)
    Empathy--what a good word!


I absolutely love hearing from you! Thank you so, so much for your thoughts and comments, they really do make my day. Consider yourself awesome. Also, I do my best to respond to every comment within 24 hours, so I invite you to come back and continue the conversation :)

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