I spent a couple of days in Windsor, this week, telling stories at Cumberland Lodge, which is in the Great Park, which is basically the Queen’s back yard. Harry and Meghan drove their carriage through the park after the recent royal wedding.
Cumberland Lodge is also the fictitious home of Roald Dahl’s BFG – Big Friend Giant – he taught here in the 1970s and thought it would be a great setting for the BFG house – especially as he lived in a house called Cumberland Lodge in Cardiff, when he was young,
I was with the author Bali Rai and we took turns telling stories and explaining how reading builds empathy. While Bali told stories, I drew pictures of his – and my – audience. You can see the drawings towards the end of the video.
Happy Empathy Day? What’s that? Oh no! Not another weird American idea we are going to have to buy greetings cards for?
Today is actually the first Empathy Day. In relation to this post I should be calling it #EmpathyDay because hashtags and social media are one of the main cause for the recent lowering of empathy in society.
I remember when satellite TV came in. I wondered how we would cope with so much choice. We didn’t cope. We just burrowed our way through the dross to settle into our comfortable niches where we only have to watch what pleases us.
The internet and YouTube have had the same effect, while at one moment creating moments of national and international unity, most of the time we choose to burrow ever deeper into our tiny and personal media worlds.
I’ve really noticed it during this past election. In the last couple of years, I’ve actively not unfriended tweeters and face bookers who irritate me with their political views. Because of that choice, I’ve been party to a stream of political promotion from all sides. I wasn’t surprised by the result at all. I like to think I sit pretty much in the centre, and it became obvious that Jeremy Corbyn’s huge crowds had not been rented in but were real, enthusiastic supporters who were using the new media to promote themselves.
Similarly it was obvious that Theresa May was losing ground rapidly.
If I’d isolated myself, into what we now call an echo chamber, I’d have only heard one side of the political argument and would never appreciate or even be aware of anyone else’s position or views. Some I still do not understand, but at least I’m aware of them.
Now, after the result, I’m witness to tweets and messages of those who feel aggrieved, who are locked into their echo chambers and are not listening or being made aware of other forces and views around them. That can only lead to entrenchment and bitterness.
Empathy is not about kindness or helping people, it’s about understanding what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. to see the world through other’s eyes. Empathy is the fast route to compromise and peaceful agreement.
So how do you build empathy? Firstly, by getting out of your cave and looking around. Then, talk to people who are not like you – not to argue and fight, but to find common elements of humanity.
What’s the easy way? Read books – not tweets or extracts.
A book takes a long time to write. The author truly considers every word they send to the printers. They’ve written those words several times overs and edited and re-written them many times too. Their editor has helped make sure that what they have said is what they mean.
Reading a book – a whole book, not an extract – is the easiest way to enter another human mind. Extracts can so easily be taken out of context and context is all.
The author may well change their mind after writing – you’ll have to read their next book to find out – but at their moment of writing and your moment of reading, though centuries may have passed, you can be one with their way of thinking.
Humans are hard-wired to love stories and learn from them. That’s why we are hooked by elections – what a great story! But most of all we love a character. This, so presidential election, was all about character.
Through sustained reading, we can become one with a character in a book, and help them carry the Ring to Mordor, or to suffer Tracey Beaker’s childhood with her – to share the fear of the Gruffalo and the wrath of the Minotaur with both mice and men. Through books and characters we can learn what it is like to be almost anyone else facing life-changing, ongoing, grinding every-day situations.
Through books, we can enter the minds of our friends and our enemies, heroes and failures, the great, the good and the unconsidered, un-noticed passer-by.
And the best part? By reading great stories, connecting with the past, the present and other people’s minds, we entertain ourselves, we learn and, most extraordinarily of all, we improve our reading, writing and communication skills along the way!
Reading for pleasure not only entertains, it educates and changes lives.
Try it. Come out of your cave, and you too can have a truly Happy Empathy Day!
To find out more about empathy day and how empathy can help boost reading and wring skills, got to the Empathy Lab website.
Have you noticed the word Empathy being used more often, recently? I have, but then I’ve been following EmpathyLabUK for the last year or so.
Even so, Empathy seems to be everywhere… or not. which is the problem.
In the UK, we seem to have become more polarised into smaller and smaller interest groups, isolating ourselves in our echo chambers of FaceBook and Twitter, seemingly unable to understand, or want to understand other people’s views and lives.
I think it was the visceral hatred of immigrants that erupted following the Brexit Referendum that was the wake-up call. The internet and our new-found limitless choice has not necessarily made us more selfish, but it has removed from us the need to think of others.
Children, alone on the internet in their bedrooms, are ripe for exploitation. Flicking from one thing to another, they are growing up on a diet of junk food.
I look at my video statistics. I know how kids flit from video to video, taking in the minimum. I know, I flit myself. Put a twenty second intro onto your YouTube video, and I’ve moved on after 8 seconds – never mind the quality of your content.
eBooks have not had an impact on children’s reading. Animated books do not teach how to read.
But research done by Empathy Lab has shown that not only can reading improve empathy, by learning abut other people’s lives and thought processes, that sense of empathy with a character or situation actually improves reading skills and levels. A win win situation!
Of course, those of us who read for pleasure know all this instinctively. Sustained reading not of a page of text, but a whole book – a work of deep thought, care and construction – is the best, and probably the only way to enter someone else’s mind and dwell there for a while . To feel their pain and joy, to understand their culture, to understand their position in the world relative to yours, to understand their grievances as well as their lucid or blinkered ideas or their enlightening or unacceptable attitudes. Knowledge is power and understanding how others think gives us knowledge of the world and confidence navigating our way through it.
And this all comes from reading for pleasure. The best, and only way to really improve reading skills. Like any skill it takes time and practice. Reading can’t be improved by learning grammar, it can only be improved by putting in the hours, lazing around on the sofa reading an inspiring, exciting, infuriating, magical, fantastical, horrifying, adventurous, heartbreaking but ultimately satisfying book – all the way through, from cover to cover – not a page from which we ask, “What do you think the author meant?” You won’t ever know, unless you read all the words either side of that page.
So reading skills improve and empathy improves, leading to better friendships and calmness in class. Go and look for yourself at EmpathyLabUK see what it’s all about.
No wonder everyone is talking about Empathy.
Empathy Day is on Tuesday 13th June 2017 – you can empathise with me on the day- waiting for the man to come and dig a tree stump out of a flowerbed