The Act of Storytelling as a Path to Empathy


“ [I]f you are a fanatic, you will never appreciate literature. And if you appreciate literature you will never be a fanatic. Fanaticism is about black and white: People are either good or bad. People are either with us or against us. On the other side, literature is absolutely the contrary. Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings.” 

—Egyptian writer and activist, Alaa Al Aswany, The Atlantic


Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading a group discussion about empathy and ways to foster connection and understanding at a time when many in our society feel we've reached a new us-versus-them low. Promoting empathy is but one way to counteract the vitriol, misinformation, and intolerance we seem to be experiencing daily on social media, in the news, perhaps even at the dinner table. Empathy can serve as an antidote to bigotry and bias. When we walk in each other's shoes, it is harder to misunderstand—or, worse, hate—one another. 

But what is empathy, exactly? Here researcher and storyteller, Brené Brown, defines it:

New research explains what happens in the brain when we empathize with others. The findings are complex and have led to more questions that are worthy of study, but, as a writer, I'm interested in the ways in which stories and storytelling offer us opportunities to subvert stereotypes and demonstrate our shared humanity. Empathy is the very thing that makes a story compelling. Without it, our stories are sentimental, one-dimensional. When we read literature, specifically literary fiction, we feel empathy for the story's characters. The act of reading engages the imagination and allows a reader to inhabit the perspectives and interior lives of the characters. But how might the act of storytelling be employed as a tool of empathy?

Several years ago, I served as a consultant to the global nonprofit, Narrative 4. N4 promotes empathy through story exchanges between groups of people who might not otherwise cross paths. Recently, for example, N4 sponsored a story exchange between gun rights advocates and victims of gun violence. N4 has also held story exchanges in countries where political and civil conflict keep communities in a perpetual state of antipathy. For instance, in Belfast, N4 has brought together students from two schools, one Protestant, one Catholic, to exchange stories in an effort to promote understanding between the two groups: 

Stories are powerful. They can change us in fundamental ways. But as writers and readers, we must also be aware of a story or storyteller's ability to undermine human equality and understanding. In her popular Ted Talk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the danger of the single story: 

"The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story...Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity."

This speaks to the power of storytelling and the central role it plays in our lives. Stories allow us to make sense of the world, through symbols and plain meaning. They enable us to communicate complex emotions and interpret the feelings of others. Storytelling "involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener" and the stories we share are as essential to our lives as the oxygen we breathe. It is right, then, to improve upon—not diminish or detract from—our ability to tell them. Our job as writers is to tell a diversity of stories, to use storytelling for good, to hope for empathy as an outcome. Our work as readers is to resist the single story. To read widely. To empathize.

What are your thoughts on the potential of stories to promote empathy? How has literature or the act of telling a story influenced you or made you more understanding of another's life and circumstance?

I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful...And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me.
— Barack Obama, "President Obama on What Books Mean to Him," New York Times, January 16, 2017