Sunday, 27 September 2015

A Thousand Lives

Every now and then, an article pops up on my Newsfeed that has a title that goes something a long the lines of "15 Things Only Sisters Can Understand", or "24 Things Only Dog Lovers Can Understand", or "83 Things Only Software Developers Can Understand." These articles annoy me no end. Not because I can't see the humour in listing things that are unique to a certain niche experience, or because I'm against the "Aren't Sisters/ Dogs/ Software Developments great!?" sentiment that I assume lies behind them. 

They annoy me because their title assumes that we live in a world without empathy;  that it is impossible to understand something that is outside your direct remit of experience. This is, of course, nonsense. If we're going to live in a world where we can only understand people who are just like us, then we may as well give up now.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand and share the feelings of others from within their frame of reference. 

It's the basis of friendship, of compassion, of a diverse and kind society.

It's also one of the things that is most awesome about reading.

Unsurprisingly, this sentence is one of those most well-known in literature: "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Not only does Atticus make a profound point about human relationships, but he nails what it is- or much of what it should be- to read fiction. 

When you read you are in the process of climbing inside of someone else's skin, and seeing life from their point of view. It scares me that reading is less popular than it was- not as much because I care about literacy as because I care about empathy.

There's such beauty in the capacity to pick up a book, and immerse yourself in another person's world, another person's frame of reference.

George R.R. Martin (author of a series called "Game of Thrones" - you heard about it here first #not...) put it, "the reader lives a thousand lives; the man who never reads lives only one." And it's true. For example, I don't know what it is to be someone's second wife, but as I read Rebecca, I glimpse what it might mean to wrestle with the weight of jealousy, fear and desperation that might threaten and swell in the weeks following marriage. I will never know what it is to be an African tribesman, facing the deterioration of everything precious and sacred about my culture and my person, but as I read Things Fall Apart, I begin to feel the anguish of a life, a worldview, a heritage torn apart. I am not a middle aged man, and I hope I never have an affair- but as I read Stoner, I could feel its compelling attraction for a man whose quiet, dutiful life was frustrated by lovelessness, by rivalry, by isolation. 

I want to read because I want to know what it is to live a life that is not my own. My life experience is narrow, and reading lets me see and feel life from the perspective of those with a different set of assumptions, weaknesses, privileges...

Reading allows us to live a thousand lives, to see, as C.S. Lewis puts it, "with a myriad of eyes", to "become a thousand men"- and yet remain ourselves. But while I remain myself, I don't remain unchanged. Literature lets me be shaped by experiences and feelings and motivations and bitternesses that are not currently- and may never be my own. But I'm better equipped to love for having felt them as I read.  

Reading teaches me to empathise. 

And what's awesome about empathising is that it's very like Jesus. 

But Jesus empathises with humanity in a uniquely gritty, uniquely real, and uniquely glorious way. The carol encapsulates the wonder so beautifully: lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb! The Lord of glory doesn't despise our lowly frame of reference.Though he is in very nature God, he doesn't run from, reject or revolt against becoming one of us. 

From the womb to the grave we have a Saviour who empathises; who sees things from our point of view. He identifies with our weaknesses, our heartaches, our motivations. This is glorious. Jesus has taken on our skin, walked round in its weakness, and died to pay for its inadequacies. He identifies. He sympathises. He understands. He has felt as we have felt. And because from that place of weakness, he does not sin- he secures our salvation.

Christ took on a frame of reference that was not his own. And I want to be like him. And reading fiction is just one small thing that, I think, helps me do this.

Reading. Jesus. Get involved.


  1. Ooooops you're right! Sorry! Wangled me a comment though ;-)

  2. So, I read this earlier this week but didn't manage to post until now. I've nothing profound to say other than "preach it sister".

  3. Love this. I agree. I also want to read more now. Thank you (again and again)


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