The Importance of Story – Human Empathy and Shared Experiances

66231929_152630af42_bI read for a number of reasons as a child – as an escape, because the story was fun, because I liked the characters and the world that was built around me when I opened a book. But, when I think back on the books that I read, it was the stories that meant something, that presented some facet of humanity, that stayed with me.

I remember reading books about female mages and warriors and those that were outcasts. I remember taking what those heroines did, and merging it with everything my parents taught me. I remember wanted to be like those people, to have the morals of those people.

When I lived in Japan, and I was the only one in a very rural area who spoke English, the only one who knew of my cultural experience, the only one who could not participate in a shared cultural experience, I read because those books gave me an place to belong. I could understand every word in them, I didn’t have to make my way painstakingly through a sentence word by word, to the point where it took an hour to get through a paragraph. The language meant what it said – there was no other culture behind it that made the words mean something else entirely.

And I remember when I could read stories in Japanese, when I understood not just what the words were, but what they meant, how they were informed by culture. I could talk with my friends about these stories, could share in a cultural experience with them, even though it wasn’t the culture I’d spent a majority of my life in.

These days I read less fiction that I used to, but I still read stories. Blog posts about inter-sectionalism, dissertations in newspapers about what’s wrong with society today, twitter feeds that talk of an experience I will never have, but that I can respect exist. Ted talks about loss and discoveries. ‘The Moth’ stories about miscarriages, and death, and renewal. The internet grants me a endless set of corridors which I can walk down. It gives me the opportunity to sit in the corner and listen, without infringing upon, conversations about systems of oppression, which I, as a middle class white girl, am a contributor to, whether I want to be or not. Thus is the nature of privilege.

Stories are power. Because humans are granted with the gift of imagination, and thus empathy. Because when we listen to a story told, we are placed in the character’s shoes, and we can feel what they feel, experience what they experience. We can see things from their point of view, and thus live a thousand times more than we would have if we never bothered to read or listen.

Which is why things like inclusion are so important. Which is why there should be more people of the LGBTQ spectrum in our books, more women, more people of colour. It is also why listening and participating in stories in important – when you’ve spent all day reading about someone’s experiences – well, it makes you think before you open your mouth when dealing with others. Listening and reading and involving ourselves in the stories of others provides the connections that make us human; it changes our group thought from a question of “us and them” to “us and us”.

Story is important. So thus is our choice to listen or block out other people’s stories. So thus is our decision on who’s stories we write, publish and share.

Because at the end of the day, whether it be a book, a movie, a newspaper, a TV show, a blog, a twitter feed, a facebook post – stories are how we connect as human beings, how we make sense of life, and how we share experience and empathise. And thus every story is important.


Image credit: Attributed to user Aphrodite, taken from flickr, under the creative commons license


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