Reading + Travel = Empathy

It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water.  Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece  “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”

From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days.   Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.

I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading.  Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”

Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours.  It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.

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