All Together Now

Ian Stansel

Apr 22, 2011

There has been a spate of articles written in recent months about the value of books and an education in the Humanities. Danny Heitman of the Christian Science Monitor points out that the Humanities are "an important source of wisdom for those who wish to nourish and maintain a free society." Researcher Markus Appel found that reading about smart characters makes you smarter, and vice-versa. In the Wall Street Journal, Dean Bakopoulos writes about teaching "depressing" literature to disinterested undergraduates and trying to train their "hearts and our minds in the art of complexity." Turns out, it kind of works. Bakopoulos' students (well, some of them anyway) learn things from reading fiction. But what do they learn? First, the bad news from Scientific American: Researchers at the University of Michigan "found that college students' self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years." This study asked participants to respond to statements like the following: "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me." The result: Almost 75% of participants rated themselves as being less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. Now some good news, also from Scientific American: "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." A study at the University of Buffalo concurs. This latest work looked at the effects that Twilight and Harry Potter books had on schoolchildren and found that they identified with the characters and thus gained a deeper understanding of beings outside of themselves. Okay, so what? Let me quickly digress. A couple years ago my wife and I took a long weekend trip to New Orleans, a city I had never visited before. We stayed in an odd, ramshackle guest house in the French Quarter and took an obligatory stroll down Bourbon Street, a foot-tall, sugary and nearly booze-free frozen concoction in hand. Once we ventured outside the semi-manufactured fun of that main drag, the city was wonderful. There was a weight of history and culture in the air. On our last morning, before making the drive back to Houston, we wandered through the French Market, perusing the wares of the folks behind their tables. There were sellers of CDs, art, herbs, and clothing. At one of the last booths I passed, there were t-shirts for sale, one of them black with white block lettering that read Don't Ask Me 4 Shit. Well, I thought, that's a bit on the nose, isn't it? This was around the same time as the great healthcare debate and this video that seemed to illustrate perfectly the political climate. We also saw, around this time, the dustup over President Obama's desire for a Supreme Court justice with the powers of empathy, and the controversy that this word caused. There was something bad going on. The destructive "Us vs. Them" attitude of the early- and mid-aughts had somehow devolved into an even-worse "Me vs. You" stance. We all live in the middle of a series of six-billion-plus concentric circles, each of them representing the not me. Closest to us might be our children and spouses, perhaps our parents or siblings, these people with whom we share both blood and our most cherished memories (the nearly me). Maybe next come our aunts, uncles, and cousins, maybe our grandparents, or perhaps our dearest friends. Who's next? Childhood chums? College buddies? (Kinda like me). At some point, we run out of the people we know personally and the circles become populated by folks we've never met: those from the same hometown, the same state and region, people of the same ethnic, religious, or economic background, the same profession. Perhaps we feel a stronger gut connection to strangers of the same gender. Perhaps it is nationality that drives our allegiance. Further out, we might find people of other cities, countries, other cultures, people who don't look or dress or talk like us, people whose belief systems might seem strange or even at odds with our own (really, really not me). Every once in a while, these circles collapse on each other. In the moments and days and weeks after a tragedy or injustice we are able to see a person down the street as a brother or sister. We can see and speak to a stranger and see something in her eyes or her gait, hear something in her voice, that reminds us of our own mother, and for a tiny moment, those two women are the same and our impulses toward the one are transferred to the other. We give our time and energy and money to help these new members of our tribe, to rebuild their lives and homes, to help ensure a safer future for them and ourselves because, in those beautiful moments, what is the difference? But this fades, perhaps unavoidably. Stresses and prior commitments demand attention. Life, as they say, gets in the way. So what can we do about this? What means do we have to prevent those circles from spreading out again, to hold on to that feeling of oneness? According to the researchers at the University of Buffalo: "Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment." The work needn't be of the sort that takes on connection directly; it doesn't have to be "Cathedral" or The Stranger. Connection can come more obliquely. Identifying with wizards and vampires can make you a better human. Setting aside my personal writerly feelings about Twilight, to those who would otherwise be watching Two and Half Men, I say read on. Even vampires and wizard boys give us practice at being family and friends and neighbors. They help us to understand those who we might not have thought we could understand. They helps us to see others as human and that those around us are just the same as we are--or more importantly, that we are just the same as them.