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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What the world needs now: Empathy

Hi everyone! I am YA author B A Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline says it all - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them. 

This month I'm blogging about the E-word.

This is that season, you know the one were everyone shouts about peace on earth and good will toward men. I have to think about another word. Empathy. You know, that ability to see things from another point of view. To understand and at least temporarily share someone else's feelings, even if that someone else is outwardly very different from yourself.

I have a quote from Purple heart recipient Charlene Lauderdale, a retired master sergeant in the United States Air Force. She was also born with both female and male anatomy. After living most of her life as a man, she is now legally a woman faced with all the challenges the transition represents. Instead of the walk a mile in someone else's shoes cliche, I will use her words:
You never know until you step up to the plate and swing at the ball coming at you.
See, it's not about feeling sympathy or approval. It's about understanding.

Two weeks ago at my adult Sunday School class, the subject of Ferguson Missouri and the Michael Brown came up. One member of the group made a statement saying he could never understand how anyone could ever try to hit a police officer for any reason.

Never understand.

I'm not going to pretend I know the right or wrong or the final truth about anything that has happened or is happening in this arena.  But I know that anyone content to relax and say "I'll never understand" and let that be the end of things, lacks the ability--or the desire--to even consider the possibility that another individual might look at the world and see something outside their own vantage point. 

Not long ago I saw a call from a teacher looking for books for her elementary class she could use to help teach them empathy. My answer: get any book about anyone who is different from them, who lives a life different from theirs in terms of social class, race, ethnicity, and physical location. Hand them books that show these characters face the kinds of challenges her kids can understand. Let her readers walk through those books wearing the character's shoes so they also see his or her motives, issues, thoughts, goals and emotions. See their sorrows and their triumphs. Become someone different from themselves, at least for the time it takes to get through that book.

A good book can be the perfect empathy training ground.  The march 2013 issue of the Rotarian included an article called The Truth About Fiction. In that article, cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley is quoted as saying:
…reading more fiction enables you to understand other people better.  Fiction is about exploring a range of circumstances and interactions and characters you’re likely to meet.  Fiction is not a description of ordinary life; it’s a simulation. ...fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations...

Inside the pages your mind can occupy another space, another body. You can see the world through different eyes. Unfortunately, too many of us read books about people who are like ourselves.  I don't mean that we're all beautiful heroines or navy seal heroes. But a load of the books we read are about people who are basically like the reader. White, middle class or wealthy, primarily suburban. As a result - little or no empathy is required or promoted during the reading of that book, and opportunities are lost. WNDB was born for various reasons. Partly by authors and concerned members of the publishing industry who saw how many children's books featuring a protagonist outside the typical "universal" background could not find a publisher. That included fantasy and speculative fiction,  aliens and yetis were more plentiful than kids of color, kids who lived in poverty, or people who existed outside the US, Canada, England or the UK. Don't even ask about non-christian kids or the handicapped.  

I believe that books featuring Heroes or Heroines from all places and walks of life can have stories that bring something to enrich us all. That characters who are neither rich nor middle class can share their form of the universal story with readers, and in the process, enhance the readers' lives. Those books can teach readers they do not have to condone an individual's actions, but that understanding is the path toward a better future.

That's why I write diverse books. It's also why I teach a class for writers who want to write about people who are different from themselves.  It's not an easy task. If done wrong, the author can do more harm than good, promoting stereotypes that negate the need for empathy because the reader Ends up feeling, "Everyone knows that's how those people are."  And people from the group can feel victimized when seeing themselves portrayed as a caricature.  The class is for authors who want to do the work needed to do a good job understanding and portraying someone else. And, in the process, developing more than a little empathy themselves.

I want to thank you for reading this long-winded blog post.  I do so by holding a contest. If you've done a Rafflecopter contest before you know how easy it is.  If not, just check out he box below. Each option has a point value. You can comment or like or tweet for chances to win. The prize is a free spot in the next Adding The Spice Of Diversity To Your Writing class being held in February, 2015. And, if February is not right for you, I have a second class coming in June 2015 you can select instead.

Information on the class is available at the YARWA website. This is the Young Adult chapter of the Romance Writer's of America, the organization sponsoring the February session.  Simply enter the rafflecopter contest below. There are multiple chances and ways to win, staring by making a comment about your feelings on Empathy on this blog. The contest runs until the second Wednesday in January when I will announce the winner on my monthly blog post.


Click here to enter contest for a free spot in Adding The Spice Of Diversity To Your Writing class

3 comments:

Sarah Raplee said...

What an eloquent post, B.A.!

I believe whole-heartedly that fiction promotes empathy and understanding. I've read about recent scientific studies that support this.

I'd love to take your class!

Judith Ashley said...

OMG BA, you have hit so many nails on the head with this post (which is not long-winded but full of important information about seeing the world around us from a different perspective).

So often when working in child welfare and now protecting vulnerable adults, I've said to myself - would I be doing as well as this person is if I'd come from their background? Generally the answer was 'no'.

We see the outside but we've no idea what the person's experiences have been, what has shaped him or her into the person s/he are today.

Thank you for writing books that educate, inform and also heal others.

B. A. Binns said...

Thanks. And don't forget to click and enter the giveaway. You will have different ways to earn contest points, (comments count for four points) Raffelcopter keeps track and will randomly pick a winner. So far there is only one entry, so your chances will be good.