How articles, essays, and books can help us understand one another better.
One of the greatest gifts we can give those around us is a willingness to see things from their perspective. The word “empathy” is commonly used these days, so I’ll focus on that word. (Though despite my appreciation for the word, I expect it will get over-used and eventually begin to go the way of “synergy” and other buzzwords.)
I’ve heard it said that building empathy for others requires proximity to them. While I think there’s a lot of merit to that, I also believe there are other ways to build empathy that may be more immediately accessible. The main thing that comes to mind is reading.
When I was in high school, I hated reading. At least, I thought I hated reading. I avoided reading assignments more than I care to admit. (Especially given that some of my teachers from those days read this blog. 😄👋🏻) What I eventually realized, though, was that I hated reading books that I was told to read. Go figure.
As I dug into entrepreneurship, I kept hearing this phrase, “leaders are readers.” I was pretty clueless about running or growing a business, so I leaned into that phrase and started to pick up some books. It didn’t take long at all for me to commit to this newly developing habit. I was getting so much out of books, and I kicked myself — and occasionally still do — for not reading more sooner.
What started as a focus on business-themed books eventually grew into other genres as well. I was enjoying books on my faith, philosophy, history, biographies, sociology, and more. Somewhere along the way, I realized how much I was learning about other people through reading.
(At this point, some of you are likely thinking, “Duh!” I know, I know. I’m not writing this for you, though. I’m writing this for other versions of Past Erik. 😆)
As I read more and more authors who had vastly different life experiences from my own, I noticed I started to develop more empathy toward those around me. I jumped to fewer conclusions about intentions or actions. I more easily remembered that I don’t know certain aspects of their lives — and likely never will. And I started to recognize them as more than just a small part of them. (“Coworker,” “musician,” “artist,” “friend from high school,” “attorney,” “pastor,” etc.)
Reading broadly was helping me develop empathy. So I began to choose authors and books more strategically, going down paths I wouldn’t usually default to. From memoirs, historical reviews, fiction, and more, I credit reading for much of the empathy I experience with others.
I’ve been thinking about this subject for a little while and decided it was worth sharing. Even if there is just one reader who decides to start reading more after coming across these thoughts, it’ll be worth the time to write them. Reading has been such an impactful investment that I work to find ways to share it with others.
Here’s an incomplete list of books that have helped me in recent years. Many of them are written primarily from the perspective of the author and focus on their lived experiences.
Are you wondering how to choose some books that may help in building empathy? It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Here’s one thought that may help: Choose an area of life where you find yourself frustrated or confused by a subject and also find yourself repeatedly saying, “why would they do/say/think that?” This may be a good indication of opportunity.
Happy Reading! Let me know if you end up choosing a book or two in this way. I’d love to hear from you.
© 2023 Erik Reagan unless otherwise noted
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