How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy


I apologize for this being a rather long read, but it is some awesome stuff and a true motivator for us to tell more stories…………

How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy
By PJ Manney

Empathy is…the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another. As the world grows smaller and more connected, the role of empathy grows larger and more important than ever. Where no empathy exists, conflict breeds. However, as our technological connectedness has increased, there does not appear to be a proportionate increase in global empathy. Instead, we are living in a time of relatively decreasing empathy, compared to our connectedness to the greater world. Its lack can be found all around us, be it in our wars, crime, inequality, anti-social behavior and even the lack of social consensus within previously homogeneous cultures and the myopic behavior of the “me generation.”

As the rate of technological change accelerates, the issues surrounding empathy and their importance will only increase. Increasing empathy seems to correlate generally with higher levels of organization. If accelerating technology means our own species and its interactions continue to gain in complexity, then by necessity, we must increase our levels of empathy to follow suit. If we don’t, we may become unfit to continue as a species and bring about our own demise.

Empathy and technology have been linked for millennia. The first great wave happened with the birth of written language, allowing thoughts to be recorded and referenced later, enabling one to experience the thoughts of another at any time. The next wave came with the advent of the printing press and the popularization of vernacular literature as a mass-medium. This allowed the mass dissemination of counter-cultural and liberalizing ideas throughout Western civilization. Some of the most powerful ideas were distributed through printed stories as novels.

But what is it in a story that makes us empathize? I believe it is the imaginative act of the reader translating the words on the page into thoughts and feelings, enabling them to see the world through the characters’ eyes and feel their feelings. It is also the recognition that humans share common needs, goals and aspirations and that these are either met or unmet in the story of every life, be it real or fictional. Whether the story is a comedy or a tragedy only depends on the point of view. What makes literature such a potent brew is that we do not suffer these virtual travails in our own reality. We survive the vicarious experience, which might be devastating to us in reality, and emerge relatively unscathed, packing storytelling’s virtual punch.

Storytelling is both the seductive siren and the safe haven that encourages the connection with the feared “other.” As a reader, I know that I don’t really have to go to Japan, be sold into human slavery and train to be a geisha to feel for a geisha’s existence. I don’t even have to speak to a geisha and risk the mutual embarrassment of cultural or linguistic misunderstanding. I just have to read Memoirs of a Geisha and somehow, my appreciation for the travails of women in another culture that is so alien to mine will grow in ways usually impossible without intense human contact. If you regularly place yourself in the shoes of different characters and experience empathy for them, this recurring behavior cannot but help open up your view of the world and create a more empathetic personality.

In most stories, the more the protagonist suffers from, yet overcomes, social immorality (deprivation, disenfranchisement, slavery, sexual/racial/religious/ageist chauvinism or discrimination, hate, war, etc.), the more successfully the novel changes the reader’s perceptions of what was right and wrong in their society. Think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anna Karenina, To Kill a Mockingbird, all of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Defoe, Zola Neale Hurston, Sinclair Lewis, E.M. Forster. These works and writers profoundly changed how their societies viewed what was the moral status quo and while no single work or author could be pointed to as the lynchpin for social evolution, in the aggregate, their voices were clearly heard. The exception to this might be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her novel against slavery was so thoroughly read throughout every level of literate American society, and so thought provoking and galvanizing in its abolitionist stance in its time, when President Abraham Lincoln met her years later during the Civil War, he greeted her with the remark, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Such was the power of her single, well written, well timed novel. Empathy and courage won the day where fear, ignorance and injustice previously held sway.

How we relate to stories and storytelling can be seen as an acid-test for empathy. People who do not read novels often lack this empathetic response, to the point of narcissism. Those who don’t read novels or listen to stories are condemned to repeat the same old mistakes that mankind has been making since the dawn of time. The novel and story-telling on the other hand, creates a world in which people are fairly adept at both feeling and thinking, and at thinking about feeling.

When we talk about the death of the story, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the story has died. If the story has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic and foolish policies. If the story has died for men then the inner lives of their friends and family members are a degree more closed to them than before. If the story dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well. If the story should die, what is to replace it?

So as I read and listen to stories, so I am.

But since we are discussing advancing technologies, are there more current media applications than novels and human story telling which can achieve the same results?

There is a belief among some academics and storytellers that the non-visual story has a deeper psychological impact than the visual story, since the non-visual relies on each mind using its personal experience to build its imagination, making it a more intimate, relatable ‘vision’ with a greater impact on one’s empathy. In essence, the receiver of the story becomes the co-creator of the story. According to this theory, the more senses employed to experience the story, the weaker the story’s potential empathetic influence.

Think about the growth of “personal media.” The transformative power of a single novel or story was possible because of a lack of media choices in previous centuries. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, an entire nation read it because the media pickings were far slimmer and it was a catchy, thought provoking, controversial read that many people thought was integral to their participation as educated citizens. What is the motivation to read a work like this now (especially young adults), when we have television’s mega-channel universe, iPods, the Internet, gaming, movies and an Amazonian selection of printed material to choose from, most of which do not challenge our beliefs of what our, or any other society, is really like?

Personal media is destroying empathy. Individuals can select from a vast cyber-sea of media and utterly saturate their information space exclusively with information sources that reinforce existing world views. Each of us can create our own personal media walled garden that surrounds us with comforting, confirming information, and utterly shuts out anything that conflicts with our world view. This is social dynamite, because knowledge and information that comes from “outside the box” is the glue that holds society together. It is the stuff that causes people to change their opinions and to empathize with others.

Young people in the 21st Century have only known a world dominated by personal media. They already use multi-media technology extensively for connection, living on My Space or the Facebook, IMing and texting, and by and large, they don’t encounter “the other.” They usually encounter more of themselves, looking for people with similar points of view and taste: “OMG, does anybody else out there think is HOT?” Worse, many use it as a venue to commodify their narcissism with self-advertisements. Each screen asks the viewer to not only “Look at me. Want me. Love me,” but to, “Buy me,” by making them an official “Friend.” Emotional prostitution does not increase empathy. If anything, it increases their reliance on their peer group values and not on alternative values that might challenge their belief systems and open them up to a world they have yet to experience. The more they connect, the less they learn and their blogs and chat-rooms demonstrate an increased narcissism beyond the normally high level associated with their age group in their search for individuation. They search for validation in self-reflection, and, in the hall of mirrors that can be the Internet, only their mirrored peers reflect back at them.

The only hope is for all of us to tell stories. Lots and lots of stories. Both our own stories and the stories of others. Both true and fictional stories. But most importantly, like the best storytellers, we must make these stories universal in their appeal. And make them from our heart. Then we must spread these stories as pervasively as possible in the multicultural sphere, using as many forms of media as possible, in the hopes of catching those who don’t share the same views unawares, so when they read or listen to that story, they might say to themselves, “You and I may not be alike, but now I understand you. And I think you’d understand me, too, if I told you my story.”