Empathy: My One Little Word




My friend
fell at recess
and scraped up
his knee.
I heard
some kids laugh—
What a clown!
Did you see?

Though the sky
was bright blue,
in my heart
it felt gray,
so I sat
with my friend
till the pain
went away.


I’ve realized in recent years that I prefer to take my time to think about things. Apparently a lot of my thinking happens unconsciously because I find answers and connections seem to come to me almost out of the blue if I give them enough time. Around New Year’s Day when other people were announcing their one little words for the year, I tried very hard to find one, but nothing felt quite right. It wasn’t until this week that the word empathy rose to the surface.

I think of my mind as a kind of soup, churning and bubbling with crazy ingredients from all over the place. Here are a few of the ingredients that pushed empathy to the surface.

Years ago I heard about research that supports the notion that people who read literary fiction are more empathic. Isn’t that incredible? It makes perfect sense of course, but I love the idea that there has been research to support it.

Julianne Chiaet, writing in Scientific American describes the findings this way:

[Literary fiction] prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Understanding characters in literature helps us understand people in the world. Reading teaches us how to be empathic.

Two other things roiling around in my brain were Viola Davis’ introduction of Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Both of them spoke about empathy.

Ms. Davis described being in Ms. Streep’s company this way:

And as she continues to stare, you realize she sees you. And like a high-powered scanning machine she’s recording you. She is an observer and a thief. She waits to share what she has stolen on that sacred place, which is the screen. She makes the most heroic characters vulnerable; the most known, familiar; the most despised, relatable.

It is this seeing, this ability to empathize so deeply, which is the source of Ms. Streep’s power to convey another person, another life, on screen.

In her acceptance speech Ms. Streep chose to highlight a moment of extreme lack of empathy.

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

Indeed Ms. Streep’s empathy is so great she cannot let this moment go.

I agree with Ms. Streep that there is an important connection between empathy and politics. Who could take health insurance from someone if they could empathize with the pain of their fears and losses? Who could feel entitled to grab a woman if they could empathize with the violation of her personhood? Who could banish refugees and immigrants from our borders if they could empathize with the forces that would propel someone to leave their home and families?

I also agree with Ms. Streep on this point when she says, “an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like.” Couldn’t the same be said of writers?

This year I will try to think of myself as a poet, writer, and teacher of empathy.

Carol has the Poetry Friday round up today at Beyond Literacy Link. See you over there.

Have a good weekend,


31 replies
  1. Bridget Magee
    Bridget Magee says:

    Your poem explains empathy perfectly to young ones, Liz! And Viola and Meryl explain it perfectly to not so young ones (especially ones who should know better). Thank you for sharing what I suspected about literary fiction, too. My OLW is safety, but since choosing it I’ve been taking more risks…what’s up with that? =)

  2. jama
    jama says:

    Yes yes yes. Empathy is crucial. Love your poem and hearing your thoughts about the value of literary fiction in fostering empathy. Empathy as a first step, understanding and compassion hopefully to follow.

  3. Jane the Raincity Librarian
    Jane the Raincity Librarian says:

    Such a beautiful and gentle celebration of true empathy. Being empathetic doesn’t mean fixing other people’s problems so much as it does supporting others as they solve their own problems. We can’t necessarily make other people’s pain go away, but we can be there with them when they need us.

    • Liz Steinglass
      Liz Steinglass says:

      Thanks, Jane, this is something we talk about a lot in our house. Sometimes you really don’t want help, just understanding.

  4. bjleepoet
    bjleepoet says:

    What a wonderful poem and post, Liz! That’s very interesting about obtaining (for lack of a better word) empathy by reading literary fiction and I think that’s so true. We all know someone who has probably never read any! I know you’ve been very upset and in turmoil recently over the political situation, as have I. Empathy will take us far as we resist.

  5. cvarsalona
    cvarsalona says:

    Liz, kudos I finding your one word so that will guide you on your journey as a poet, writer, and teacher of empathy. Your poem touched my heart as did the excerpts from the awards’ show. I heard both speeches from Viola and Meryl and was swept away with their candor when discussing empathy.

  6. lindabaie
    lindabaie says:

    I understand about that OLW challenge. I don’t always choose one, but this year a picture book stood out, A Day Is Waiting, and Iloved the idea that every day was like that blank page or unwritten poem, waiting. I am trying to greet the day every morning with joy. As for empathy, as a teacher of middle school aged children, many many conversations about “knowing” another through their reading happened. I’m sure it helped, and I was always grateful to those authors who showed my students other ways, other people. Your poem would bring richness to a conversation, Liz. Thank you!

  7. haitiruth
    haitiruth says:

    This is a great choice for your OLW. And I like your poem, too. Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com


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