Stories and Empathy
Updated: May 22
Stories and Empathy by Monique Franz
Recently, I held a writing workshop on diversity where the discussion centered around character development for different people groups. We discussed how a person’s perspective is more than the here and now, it is the precious product of culture. It is sustained by implicit and explicit value systems. Perspective has experience. It carries baggage. It has learned joys and learned pain, which cannot be erased with a delete button.
Too often we want to change a person’s mind without doing any real work to understand the journey of their perspective. We impose our wisdom without regard to the mental infrastructure that is already set in place due a person's experiences. We may even speak truth, but it lacks empathy. It lacks love. It's like saying to a Vietnam vet who dreads fireworks, "there's nothing to fear, but fear itself." Nice quote, but the man is dealing with physiological responses to the sound of explosions that a civilian may never comprehend.
We must consider a person's views in light of their story. Stories are a powerful instrument of empathy. They place us in another person's journey of truth, a journey we may never have to walk within our own skin. Insight gained through story is not solely the result of reading, writing, or watching a made-for-TV movie. It is the product of empathetic listening and observing. Observing to understand instead of observing to judge.
A friend of mine was in an emotionally abusive relationship. It was difficult to keep my opinion to myself about her situation. I never told her to leave the guy although I was appalled at his behavior. I understood that the woman feared being alone more than any pain she endured in the relationship. Instead, I was available to listen. I simply affirmed her as an intelligent and beautiful woman. I encouraged her to pursue her career goals and celebrated her wins. I strategically reminded her of things she wanted and was worthy of. She finally left the man on her own. She now has a loving relationship with a great guy who affirms her as the amazing woman she is. Every now and then, she thanks me for having patience with her during that dark season of her life, but it was never a matter of patience for me. Since I had observed my own intelligent and beautiful mother suffer abuse, I had insight into my friend’s journey and empathy for her fears.
Empathy does not invalidate a person’s perspective or experience or pain. Empathy says, tell me your story. I want to understand where you have been, where you are now, and where you hope to go so that maybe I can help you get there.
As we ride into 2022 with so many societal divides about politics, human rights, immunization, etc., let’s commit to empathy first, and listen to understand. By doing these things, we gain greater perspective ourselves and evolve into more loving human beings.