Today I turned off the news.
Why? Well, some of this was down to simple irritation and frustration. Empty political finger-pointing, distant despots, xenophobia and an endless procession of short-sighted fools. It drives me nuts.
The rest? I'll admit it - I can be a coward. It's not pretty, but that's what it is. Sometimes I feel the urge to cower in a corner when I'm faced with images of suffering. Suffering that I can imagine so comprehensively that I am touched by its shadow. World Vision appeals make me reach out for my own little one, offering her an extra biscuit as I bury my face in her chubby shoulder. I have been known to cry over TAC ads, documentaries and the film Look Who's Talking 2 (no I don't get it either).
I also cry over books. Not pretty, dainty crying, either. The kind of crying that involves snot and puffy eyes. Audible, embarrassing sobbing. Hiccups and shuddering gasps. The unattractive face of empathy.
I've always been a reader. I don't tend to read a lot of factual stuff as there's a certain freedom in fiction that you don't get in your average biography. Reality really cramps my style. I like to imagine my characters so deeply I can smell them. I like to share their experiences and escape into their worlds.
Interestingly, studies have shown that reading narrative fiction can increase empathy. I'm not a scientist or a psychologist, but I can understand why this might be. As we read fiction we put ourselves into someone else's being. We share their thoughts. We work out their motivation. We solve their puzzles and experience their grief. Not only do we walk in their shoes, we feel the earth beneath their feet.
So maybe that's why I'm stuck with this extra helping of empathy.
Turning off the news doesn't help anyone and it doesn't solve anything. But maybe reading a book just might. If we have more people with empathy, maybe the news won't look so bad. Some day.
So on Thursday 14 September 2017, stop what you’re doing for one hour and pick up a book. Give one to your partner, your friend or your child. Empathy isn't always fun, and it's not always pretty, but it's empathy that can help us all work toward stopping the suffering.
For more information about the link between empathy and reading, see https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-psychology-fiction/201109/narrative-empathy
Books that have made me cry: