Life’s Necessities: Food, Water, Air, Other People, a Library Card

If art imitates life, then our engagement with art imitates our engagement with life.

We need other people.   Therefore we need other people’s stories.  Therefore we need as many of them as we can get.  And we need them well told.  And thus we need fiction.

Need it. Like air.  Like water.  Like a library card.

Scientific American MIND, a magazine I’m enjoying these days, has an interesting article on the decline in empathy in our country, What, Me Care?  Young are Less Empathetic,” in its January 2011 issue.

Consider this from the article: “In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.”

Reading fiction pulls us outside of ourselves in the same way that focusing on someone else does.  Studies on the treatment of depression frequently point to the balm that service provides, in that meeting the needs of someone else lifts our spirits.

Knowing and being known change us. Brain scans show that people react differently in the presence of empathetic others than they do when alone.  I learned a lot about this in psychiatrist Curt Thompson’s wonderful book, Anatomy of the Soul.  Check it out through Curt’s site, Being Known. I’m inadequate at articulating all the arguments made in this book, though I’ve seen it as a primer on how to do what Scripture urges, “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Jesus Christ.”  The way we know and are known relates to the reworking of our neural pathways, setting down new, positive ruts over the old crooked highways of pain in our brains.

So just as we are changed by entering into the stories of those we engage in real life, we are more empathetic people when we enter even fictional stories.

I’m on my second (and in some parts, third) run-through of Pat Conroy’s excellent My Reading Life, a paean to his love affair with the written word. In it he speaks of the power of stories: “I reach for a story to save my own life.  Always.  It clears the way for me and makes me resistant to all the false promises signified by the ring of power.  In every great story, I encounter a head-on collision with self and imagination.”

Have you ever had the experience, as I have, of desperately needing to get outside yourself, outside of your own introspective or navel-gazing tendencies… and finding that escape in another’s story?

At some of the hardest times of my life, I have found solace in engaging my brain elsewhere (anywhere besides on me). Sometimes this has come in the form of language learning (Rosetta Stone being a safe hiding place). Sometimes word games or puzzles.  But most often stories.  Fictional ones.  Movies.  Novels.  Short stories.

Hiding places, they are.

And often, as a side benefit, when we get outside ourselves into whatever story engages us, we return from that distant land with our own riddles worked out.  The answers we seek seem to creep in the back door, sit down at our kitchen table, and wait for us…while we’re out visiting the neighbors.

In my opinion, we’re too focused on productivity, on important pursuits, on our own stuff.  We think of story-telling or story-listening as expendable activities, extras, leisure-time pursuits.

When in fact they are the very food of life, the nourishment for self-heavy souls, who find respite in otherness, who find empathy when they utter those time-worn words, “Tell me a story.”


~ by Cary on February 2, 2011.

One Response to “Life’s Necessities: Food, Water, Air, Other People, a Library Card”

  1. […] Oprah and Stedman Connect Interpersonal neurobiology is fascinating to me these days.  I wrote a few days ago about Curt Thompson’s amazing book, Anatomy of the Soul (which cites Daniel Siegel’s work in this field) and about empathy (and […]

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