Tag Archives: empathy

The Immigrant Experience: Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Reading

It’s sort of an American tradition to treat immigrants to this country like dirt and try to get the most work out of them for the least money.  If your family was among the first waves of immigrants to the U.S.—the Germans or the Irish, for example—their experience as new arrivals was was a long time ago and perhaps forgotten. Yet, Benjamin Franklin opposed German immigration, stating that they would not assimilate into the culture.  There was an anti-Irish “Know Nothing” movement in the 1840s and ‘50s predicated on the idea that Irish Catholic immigrants were overwhelming the country. The largest mass-lynching ever in the U.S. took place in 1891, after several Italian immigrants were acquitted of a murder in New Orleans. The scorn has been renewed with each new wave of newcomers–Jews from eastern Europe; my relatives, those dirty Scandinavians; the list goes on.

Literature takes immigration from the realm of policy and the culture wars, the view of immigrants as “those other people,” and makes it real.  There’s no better way to get a glimpse immigrant life in America than by reading their stories. Their experiences kindle empathy, no matter what your political views.  To that end, fellow book-blogger Colleen at Books in the City has thrown down the gauntlet with a reading challenge: to read a specified number of books about the immigrant experience in 2011. Check out the reading list. I plan to read Major Pedigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson), Zeitoun (Dave Eggers), The Brief  Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz) and 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Jane Ziegelman).




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.