“I believe in empathy,” is how Azar Nafisi begins her essay in the book, This I Believe. She also believes that we can grow in empathy by reading good literature—stories that teach us more about ourselves and others.
In her essay she uses Huckleberry Finn as an example of empathy, specifically his decision not to turn over to authorities his friend, Jim, the runaway slave. Huck has been taught in Sunday school that anyone who frees a slave goes straight to hell, but he looks at Jim and remembers the good times they had together, imagining Jim and he “a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.” He seems Jim as a friend, another human being, not as a slave, and decides, “alright, then, I’ll go to hell.”
Nafisi, who was expelled from teaching at the University of Tehran for refusing to wear a veil, writes that during that time two male Muslim students came to her defense. Both were members of the powerful Muslim Student’s Association and had had heated ideological debates with Nafisi in the classroom. When Nafisi ran into one of the students, she thanked him for supporting her and he replied, “We are not as rigid as you imagine us to be, Professor Nafisi. Remember your own lecture on Huck Finn? Let’s just say, he is not the only one who can risk going to hell.”
Nafisi’s experience is confirmed by a recent scientific study at the New School for Social Research which showed that exposure to literary fiction makes readers more able to detect and understand other people’s emotions and motivations. Literary fiction, they found, makes readers more empathetic—pulp fiction and non-fiction do not have the same results.
Old Monk, who is a former literature teacher and a life-long reader, jumped with joy when she read about the connection between great fiction and empathy. She even imagined a couple of ways to act on this information. Instead of protesting against injustice in the streets, we should be sending members of Congress short stories by Leo Tolstoy and hosting book discussions. We should be sending heads of state around the world the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel and having ZOOM conferences to share ideas and insights. What’s needed for lasting change is to spark peoples’ imaginations, so they look at the world with new eyes, softer hearts, and greater understanding of the human condition. Come on people, let’s get together and read great novels, short stories and poems.
Then I read Nafisi’s essay again and thought to myself, “Old Monk, be honest, you were surprised by that encounter between Professor Nafisi and the two far right Muslim students. You didn’t expect their response. And why is that?” Well, the answer is obvious, I have stereotyped followers of radical Islam. I must think of them as less than human, incapable of standing in the shoes of a person like Professor Nafisi and choosing a ticket to hell in her defense.
So instead of sending the current person in the White House a copy of Huckleberry Finn, along with notes and a discussion guide, I’m going to reread it. Or maybe I’ll do both since both of us seem to need to grow in empathy.
PS. The essay writer Azar Nafisi is also the author of the highly acclaimed, Reading Lolita in Tehran. In that book, she chronicled her experience of secretly gathering young female students once a week in the Islamic Republic of Iran to discuss forbidden Western literature. I highly recommend it and guarantee that it will raise your empathy quotient because even though it’s non-fiction, it’s all about great fiction.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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