Sympathy was thought by many 19th century philosophers to be an essential aspect of human nature. It is how we relate to one another, how we form relationships and function in societies. The ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of another is an important trait that defines our humanity. However sympathy also has its variations, and almost a hierarchy. We feel more for people who are closer to us. The pain of an acquaintance matters a little less then the pain of our sister or our brother. Events that happen in our hometown affect us more, and motivate us to help more than what might happen in a country far away.
But in a world that is now connected in trade, travel, social media, online venues and even cultural immigration, we need to open our sympathy to care further. We have to stretch our sympathy to meet with our global communities. And what better way to do so then through literature?
Ideal presence. It’s not the same as real world experience, but it is more accessible, and protective. Movies and media fall under into this category as well; anything that helps transport us into the experiences of another. But there is something much more private and intimate about reading someone else’s words. It takes a lot of courage for someone to write and share their experiences, even more so when those experiences were dark or horrifying moments. When we read these stories, it is as if we are reading a diary, it is close to having direct access into another’s mind or thoughts or heart.
So when a writer practices there craft, or an individual decides to share a wrenching, emotional autobiography, we can really feel. Watching a tsunami occur on screen would be terrifying, and we may feel a general sorrow. But compared to reading a first-hand account of someone who lost loved ones in the same tsunami, it would be that experience that would shorten the distance. We become connected to the individual, and we open a place in our hearts for them. We do this for fictional characters too. I know I’ve cried over the deaths of fictional characters. The seventh Harry Potter book I found particular hard.
There is value in words. It connects us in more ways then we know.