In light of my last post, I wanted to take a deeper dive into what stories give us. Stories aren’t all true; fiction is, by nature, something made-up. (Fantasy, even more so.) But whether they’re true tales or works of the imagination, stories give us many things. There’s a reason we’ve kept storytelling around for so very long. I could probably be here all day listing what I think it gives us. But today I will just focus on one: empathy.
Here’s a true fact about me: I’ve never been kicked out of my home for making music. I’ve never been stuck behind enemy lines, knowing that any enemy soldier that found me out would probably kill me. I’ve never dealt with the pressures of being royalty, or the dangers of being a runaway slave.
But stories have given me a glimpse into what that might have been like. Stories have taught me a lot about people.
There’s an anecdote related by Gene Wolfe that I think about often when I’m putting together a story:
Not so long ago I saw a magnificent German shepherd lunge from between two parked cars, held in check by a blonde who could have played first base in the National League. And it struck me that a fantastic adventure could have been filmed on the spot simply by hanging a skull about that woman’s neck and equipping her with a broadsword—but the woman and her dog are everything, while the skull and the sword are nothing.
The woman and the dog are everything. Because, no matter how fantastically you’ve dressed up your story, it has to be about characters. It has to be about people. And it has to make us care about them.
It doesn’t mean that character has to be human. We tell stories about aliens, animals, ghosts. But the point is, they give us insight into what it’s like to be human. They give us windows into experiences we’ve never had (and might never have). And that insight teaches us empathy, which is probably the most important gift we have in this world.
Empathy is a skill. It takes work and effort. Sometimes the process of learning to understand people (especially those whose lives are very different from your own) means letting go of false assumptions or comforting simplicities.
But I think it is necessary work, and stories help us do that.
I’d like to hear from you now: what stories have given you greater insight & understanding into people? What stories have made you feel for a person or people you never thought you’d care about? Or heck, just tell me a story that moved you deeply. True stories count!