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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Empathy, Literacy and the Full Moon

Last night was the night of the Strawberry  Moon. No, I did not get a good picture of it with my cell phone camera. So I will leave that to your imagination -- or you could check the blog of somebody who has a real camera.

But I did have some interesting experiences, possibly due to the full moon, and also a few thoughts to share.

Yesterday I ran across an article in the Atlantic about how literacy improves empathy. It was full of platitudes: reading about another person's experiences in a literary work (as opposed to say, low brow lit) improves our ability to empathize with others, according to the article. Then they gave some reasons why they think that, among them: literacy is something that has to be taught. Because it's unnatural, it makes us think more. And thinking leads to empathy, and so we are getting better and better, and are more empathetic than pre-literate people.

If you have connections, you can write anything in a prestigious journal and get it published. But really! That argument is full of holes. First of all, literacy does not have to be taught, any more than language has to be taught. It can be picked up, but it requires exposure. Like language itself, literacy is something few people would come up with on their own, because most do not invent their own language or their own alphabet. But with exposure in a social setting, we pick up the ambient language. And many children, including Bow, have also picked up the ability to read, without explicit instruction. Literacy happens when people who are pre-wired to decode are exposed to writing and language in a social setting.

Secondly, high literature predates writing. Many great classical works of literature, including parts of the Old Testament and the Iliad, existed as oral tradition before they were ever set down in writing. Writing does not beget literature. It merely helps to preserve it. And empathy, if we have any, is something we bring to literature: not something we gain from reading it. People without empathy can't get it out of a book.

Take Bow, for instance. He has empathy, because he can feel what another person feels without getting under their skin. He brings this empathy to bear every time he grooms me.

Bow has surgical instruments at his fingertips, and yet his touch when he examines me is soft and gentle. He can remove a mole with a single flick of a finger, and yet he examines each blemish on the surface of my skin with care. Like a doctor, he examines ears, eyes and nose to determine any signs of ill health or disease. But unlike most of today's doctors, he does it without asking for a fee.

Can empathy be taught? I don't think so. No more than literacy can be. It can be demonstrated,  but we cannot expect to teach it to an unwilling and unmindful pupil. My experience is the same with readers of my books. You can take them on the journey, but they will not suffer along with the characters, if their mind is closed.  To feel for another, you have to have feelings for yourself. Today, many humans have shut themselves down. They are blind  to the sights that surround them, and they feel nothing that they have not somehow been given permission to feel by the society they live in.

Walking alone yesterday evening, I stayed open to the world around me. A snake was lying across my path, so I stepped aside and walked around it. But then curiosity got the better of me, and I turned back and tried to film it. The snake, wanting to avoid a confrontation, seeing that I was not leaving, decided to go back into the overgrown pasture.

It was an eastern yellow-bellied racer, a friend later told me on Facebook. Racer is a good name for it, as once it made up its mind to leave, it wasted no time in executing that decision.

I peered into the pasture, where I spotted a beautiful flower, which a Facebook friend later identified as common milkweed.

I continued along my path all the way to the western edge of my property, then headed back. On the way back, I came across a turtle. The turtle, being slow, allowed me to take more time to observe it.

There was exposed dirt where the turtle's hind quarters were moving, and at first I thought it was trying to dig its way out of the shallow hole it was in.

But when I shared the footage I got of the turtle with a Facebook friend, she told me it was female three-toed box turtle who was digging a nest to lay her eggs in.

I left her alone, thinking that whatever she was up to, she did not need my help to do it.

 My friend says that seeing a female box turtle dig a nest in the wild is quite rare, because they usually do this in private where no one can see. But it was the evening of the strawberry moon, and the animals were coming out. I was glad I was there to see it.

Does empathy come from a book? I don't think so. Empathy means being able to feel for others, even those quite different from us. Empathy prepares people to understand what they read. It makes us better readers and better people.  But empathy is not found between the pages of a book. It is found within us -- or not at all.


  1. Well, I found this post much more interesting that most of what is published in the Atlantic, which is a magazine I rarely read. I think the Economist has more interesting articles, anyway.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I don't normally read the Atlantic, but I saw it on someone's FB or Twitter, so I took a look.

  2. This is a very beautiful post. I have been spotting those crazy looking milk weed thistles lately. Just learned that the seeds are useful as a liver detox.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. I did not know about using the seeds of the milk weed thistle to detoxify the liver. I will have to read up on that.