Walk for a Novel in Someone Else’s Shoes

I think many of the problems that plague this world can be attributed to a lack of empathy. I’m not talking about “feeling for” someone. That’s sympathy. Empathy is born of shared experiences, allowing one person to understand how another thinks and feels. The only chance I believe we have to build real empathy with a variety of people is to read widely.

When we read, we share in the pivotal moments of another person’s life from within their head and through their point of view. We know their thoughts and feelings in the moment of experience, as well as having an understanding of the people and events that shaped their choices. After all, if the author has done their job well, a book is an emotional experience, a human experience.

I’m not saying that reading is a replacement for shared personal experience, but rather it is a proxy through which one’s empathy can grow. The best example that I can think of for me personally was Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and Bloodlines books. In this world, there are a group of magic users who harness a power called “spirit magic.” As a price for the power, spirit slowly drives the users insane, their degradation worsening as they draw upon more and more power.

The interesting thing about Mead’s world is that each of the spirit users the reader encounters has different types of mental illness. Lyssa Dragomir suffers from depression and self-harm, Adrian Ivashkov is diagnosed as bipolar, and Sonya Karp appears to be schizophrenic. None of them are simply quantifiable as “crazy.” They’re just struggling with their diverse illnesses. Mead goes out of her way not only to show how their illnesses are self-destructive, but also shows how each character comes to accept their burden, deal with it, and continue to be active agents in their own lives.

I grew up in a culture that, like many others, viewed mental illness with taboo and stigma. No one around me would admit to mental illness openly, nor would anyone talk about it with frank practicality. It wasn’t until I met characters that I liked and with whom I empathized that I was able to come to understand that mental illness didn’t have to define and limit a person, but rather was something that could be acknowledged openly and managed. Experiencing their struggles alongside them fundamentally changed how I viewed mental illness and helped me build a sliver of empathy for those who struggle with their conditions on a daily basis.


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