Why Practicing Empathy?

The time that I thought about empathy in a real, constructive way — I was 21 years old, and going to see Ira Glass in the Wharton Center on Michigan State’s campus. At show time, the lights went down to pitch dark and Ira Glass began speaking into the dark. He demontrated the power an intimacy of radio that way — listening, not seeing, not prejudging, just listening — and how you can construct a story with the intimacy of people’s voices.

At the time, I was in a creative nonfiction writing class, and I took mental notes the entire time Ira was speaking, continuing to prioritize knowledge above all things. He described his discovery through his early years at National Public Radio about what made a good story. A good story was like a train leaving a station. Like a train picked up speed slowly, it had a destination. A story picks up speed slowly, as one action leads to another and another. And finally, you take a moment to pause, to reflect, to globalize the experience so others can relate — a destination. A storyteller then repeats the exercise until the whole story is told.

But what good are stories?

This was where I stopped intellectualizing and started listening — started actually learning something from the experience.

Ira Glass beautifully retold the story of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. A king, Shaharyar, is betrayed by his wife, which makes him go mad and believe that all women will, in the end, betray him. So every night for three years, the mad king takes a wife and has her executed the next morning, until he marries Scheherazade, his vizier’s beautiful and clever daughter. For 1001 nights in a row, Scheherazade tells Shaharyar a story, each time stopping at dawn with a cliffhanger, thus forcing him to keep her alive for another day so that she can complete the tale the next night. Scheherazade tells her husband stories about themselves — about whether women are actually evil, about women who offer love and turn it down, perishing as a result. She tells wonderful and interlocking stories, using narrative suspense to keep herself alive. She tells stories that help the king practice empathy, to imagine himself as the character in the story, to see the destinations that they reach, to live vicariously through the characters.

On the morning after the 1001th night, when Scheherazade has run out of stories, the king looks at her and says, “Your father must be worried about you.” Empathy, empathy through storytelling, had calmed Shaharyar’s mind. Ira Glass went on to say that “empathy is what makes us sane.”

The problem here, though, is that in order to empathize with each other — to understand what it is to experience life as someone else — we have to listen to other people’s stories.

This blog, this writing project, is about stories. It is about putting out into the world the story of a woman, the story of a marriage, the story of one person’s search for meaning. And it recognizes that everyone’s meaning is going to be different… but let me tell you my story.

— Kate


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