Is Fiction Empathy's Best Hope?

 By Ron MacLean



One can rely on the prudence of his decisions # 04


Like most of us, I’m a hypocrite. Let’s start there. I consider myself a sensitive soul. An engaged citizen. I can also sit in a movie theater and happily chomp popcorn while fellow humans are shredded onscreen.

In the 1990 film Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself besieged by bad guys inexplicably trying to kill him. In one famous scene, Schwarzenegger climbs onto a crowded escalator in a shopping mall. His logic: The bad guys won’t shoot at him if he’s among other innocent shoppers.

Of course, he’s wrong. His attackers open fire on the escalator. Then Schwarzenegger’s character makes a pivotal decision. He uses his physical strength to drag bodies—first dead, then living—into the line of fire to save himself.

What still strikes me about that human-shield moment, and the reason I remember it all these years later after first watching the film, is the utter lack of empathy displayed by its star protagonist. Anyone who couldn’t serve his own need to escape was no more or less useful to him than a wall, a chair, or a door.

Reality check: I like action movies. Some of them disturb me. Some don’t. I need to own that, because I’m not decrying the moral decay in American cinema or culture.

What I do care about is the loss of our ability to identify with others. Empathy is a muscle that must be exercised lest it atrophy. It’s a seed that must be cultivated in order to grow—to live. And in a sped-up society in which connection is increasingly fleeting and often virtual, we can’t take empathy for granted anymore.

In a 2010 University of Michigan study, for instance, nearly 14,000 college students scored about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago. Many psychologists reacting to this study argued that empathy is in decline. For them, the real questions were how sharply and what will be the consequences.

The film Total Recall is junk food. No more, no less. Consuming it didn’t kill me or cause my health to decline. Neither, however, did it nurture empathy.

For me, fiction—reading and writing it—is the best antidote. Fiction allows me to enter another’s situation, to get a glimpse into that person’s mind and heart. The impact is the opposite of Arnold’s human-shield scene. The best fiction doesn’t desensitize readers to the needs of others. It encourages us to feel and imagine those needs.

I’ll leave it to painters, sculptors, musicians, acrobats—even poets and essayists—to articulate how their art forms cultivate empathy. From my biased perspective as a fiction writer, narrative is uniquely effective in expanding our view of the real people in our lives.


Why Do We Need Art?

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte was prescient when he predicted that America’s main way of getting news and information would be something he called the “Daily Me”—a virtual daily newspaper customized for an individual’s tastes. “We will look only for what we want to find,” Negroponte wrote in 1995. “We will read only our own opinions.”

Such me-driven communication lets us consume news and information geared to our perspective. In many ways, this is a valuable service. But it also allows us to find and consume only news and information that reinforces our existing views and biases. The “Daily Me” gives us permission to let our capacity to understand wither.

Empathy takes exercise. And cultivation.

In his essay “Only Love and Then Oblivion,” written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the novelist Ian McEwan addresses the mental work empathy demands. While it’s hard to invoke 9/11 without that ominous date becoming the focus, consider his main point:

The 9/11 hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanizing hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination.

He’s far from alone in connecting empathy with imagination. In a 2012 podcast interview, mixed-media artist Melanie Rothschild says we need art “not simply for aesthetic delight, but for the way of thinking it promotes.”

Empathy doesn’t just happen. It derives from a way of being in the world. The arts, Rothschild adds, provide a hospitable environment for imagination to take root and flourish, because “[i]magination is the first step in building empathy: How can I develop empathy for you if I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you?”

Rabindranath Tagore, the renowned writer, philosopher, Nobel Prize winner, and contemporary of Gandhi and Einstein, nodded to the same question. In the early years of the twentieth century, he devoted more than a decade of his life’s work to proposing a new educational system for his native India.

Tagore believed that nurturing creativity, empathy, and diversity is key. In his 1918 book Personality, based on an American lecture series, he claimed:

[O]ne of the central skills needed for a democratic society is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself.

This ability, he argued, “changes us and them into ‘we,’ and motivates us to act for the common good.”

The phrase he used to describe this ability? Narrative imagination.

According to Tagore, narratives are a powerful way to cultivate the emotional understanding that defines empathy. It is through story that the experiences of others become available to us. At the same time, the stories others tell remain theirs, not ours; narratives aren’t as easily appropriated or stolen as facts can be.


Evolution # 01


Why Do We Believe in What Never Happened?

It’s paradoxical, even absurd—this idea that made-up stories can develop in us an essential human quality. The idea that reading about people who don’t exist could expand our capacity to care about, and act on behalf of, people who do. But it’s true.

I had never lost anyone close to me when I first read Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping. Yet I identified powerfully with her portrayal of two young girls, Ruthie and Lucille, and their floundering attempts to regain their footing after their mother kills herself. The girls end up—lost, confused, alone—in the reluctant care of their wayward Aunt Sylvie, and that’s where the story really begins.

From one perspective, Sylvie is a vagrant whose presence threatens the girls’ already tenuous connection to their town and increases their isolation. She turns the girls against each other and ultimately dooms Ruthie to a life of drifting.

But here’s where the alchemy of fiction lies. From another perspective, which became mine as I read (and reread, and reread) this slim book, Sylvie is the confidante Ruthie never had, and the story is one in which these two misfit souls, shaped by different griefs, find companionship and family in one another, despite (or maybe because of) its significant cost. Housekeeping has only grown in my estimation as I’ve experienced loss myself.

In his 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis asks, “What is the good of—what is even the defense for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened?” Then he goes on say:

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We demand windows, and literature is a series of windows…that admit us to experiences other than our own.

Consider Tim O’Brien, an American soldier who returned from Vietnam determined to reclaim his humanity by telling the truth of what he’d experienced there. He succeeded, but not with a personal testimonial.

In The Things They Carried, his haunting 1990 book of linked stories, one character imagines the experience of a man he’d once thought of as an enemy.

“I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” the narrator says in “Good Form”:

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth: He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do…is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God…. I can make myself feel again.

Equally important, O’Brien can make his readers feel again.


Wink(on the brink)


Make Art, Not Product

And so we come full circle, back to junk food.

Of course, not all fiction or narrative writers aspire to the heights that O’Brien strives for or that Lewis speaks to. Nor am I advocating that all fiction should.

But, as a species, we’re diminished by a steady feed of entertainment product. In a 2010 blog post about a film I won’t name (it would be a cheap shot), critic Steven Greydanus puts it this way:

It’s not a bad movie. It’s inoffensive and mildly amusing, and in the end you’re the same person you were 93 minutes earlier, with not much to talk about coming out of the theater.

Why do I need to tell you this? Why do you—we—need to hear it? Because it’s not merely about taste; it’s about nutrition. In art as in food, what we consume bears on what we become. The choices we make matter.

So, to writers, I say: make art, not product. To readers: support art, nourish yourself with art, and we’ll nourish each other and our world in the process.

By referring to the cell phone calls of 9/11 victims to their loved ones, for instance, Ian McEwan evokes why the choice to feel what others feel truly matters to us all. As he writes in his 2001 essay, after such a terrible tragedy, most survivors aren’t focusing on foreign policy or military strategy:

Instead, we remember what we have seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What if it was me?

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion: you are under the bedclothes, unable to sleep, and you are crouching in the brushed-steel lavatory at the rear of that plane, whispering a final message to your loved one. There is only that one thing to say, and you say it. All else is pointless. You have very little time before some holy fool, who believes in his place in eternity, kicks in the door, slaps your head and orders you back to your seat. 23C. Here is your seat belt. There is the magazine you were reading before it all began.

The banality of these details might overwhelm you…. [But] if the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim.

Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.


Publishing Information


Ron MacLean

Ron MacLean is author of the novels Headlong (forthcoming in 2013) and Blue Winnetka Skies (2004) and the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction 2010, and elsewhere.

He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches at Grub Street in Boston.

For more about his work, see Ron MacLean’s website.

This essay has been adapted from a talk that Ron originally gave at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center Summer Workshops in July 2011.



Thanks Theresa and Elizabeth.

I try to make a point of continuing to read at least some folks I disagree with. Just to keep myself from becoming too isolated in my own perspective. And definitely listening to people I don't agree with.

hi Ron
I'm Edwin Rutsch, director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. I've been interviewing top researchers, scientists, educators, artists, etc. via Google Hangouts or Skype about their insights and experiences with empathy/compassion. I'd like to see if I could line up an interview with you as well. If so, let me know a good time and date. For more about the interviews see.
Also see our website home page for other interviews.
I look forward to hearing from you.

In teaching creative writing, I tell students that what they are trying to create in their readers is "resonance." That their readers are going to be able to feel what the character is feeling through the use of detail and all of the elements that go into great writing. What I really mean, of course, is empathy. Good writing gets us to feel. And goodness knows, we could use more of that in the world.
Great essay.

Dear Ron,
What a brilliant and timely essay! So much to ponder that I will have to read it again and again. But for now, the Daily Me.

"But it also allows us to find and consume only news and information that reinforces our existing views and biases. The Daily Me' gives us permission to let our capacity to understand wither."

My politically liberal activist friend, Jeanne, an architect, subscribes to Tea Party news feeds. When friends ask her why, she responds, "To know what they are thinking and plotting. To get inside their heads." I can't say she is seeking empathy, but it is an interesting take on the Daily Me becoming the Daily Them!

All the best,

What a great and insightful read. And that 'Total Recall' thing ALWAYS bothered me, especially because I can't imagine any of Philip K. Dick's protagonists acting in such a manner. And for the record, I love that movie -- precisely because of its ridiculous excesses.

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