The Booklover’s Guide to Empathy

How to develop empathy

Empathy is an often overlooked life skill. It helps us build great communities and avoid unnecessary conflict. So it’s well worth nurturing.

Image of a girl reading a book.
Photo by Rahul Shah on Pexels.com

Our lives are all different from each other’s. We have each been changed and shaped by a unique combination of experiences. But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand other people’s perspectives.

Although our experiences are different, we each have exactly the same set of emotions as everybody else.

That’s why as a reader, you don’t have to have been through the same events as a character, to know how they feel. You just need empathy.

Where does empathy come from?

To get the most out of fiction, we need to relate to characters. To understand their motivations and reactions. To feel what they feel. To use empathy to access our emotions.

Don’t worry if that doesn’t sound like you. Because one of the best ways to develop empathy is to read fiction. Another way is simply to get more life experience. But as we’ve learned lately, that’s not always possible! 

You know that saying, ‘you get out what you put in’? Well, that’s true here. You can read a book in school and get very little from it, only to read the same book again years later, and realise it’s brilliant! The book, of course, hasn’t changed. But you have.

The experience you bring to a book is what brings the book to life.

Maybe you’ve had an experience that made you feel something you hadn’t felt before. Or seen how a new situation affected someone you care about. Well, you’ve brought that experience to every book you’ve read since.

The role of borrowed experience

An experience that creates empathy can be a life experience, or it can be a borrowed experience. Characters may be fictional but their experience is real. What do I mean by that? Well, those characters got their experience from their creators, the authors who wrote them. And the authors got their experience from life.

Empathy is a powerful quality that helps us make sense of our world. And helps us see how we can make it better. Even when we can’t add to our bank of experiences, we can still nurture our sense of empathy. Just by reading books.

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