Building Empathy and Solidarity Through Story | Sojourners

Building Empathy and Solidarity Through Story

There's this film called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty about a guy who daydreams all the time. His vivid, out of control imagination keeps him from fully engaging his life and relationships. It's a great film, but I really love it for the irony.

A theater full of people watching a film about a guy who daydreams too much do something rare: They stop daydreaming themselves.

Humans spend about a third of their waking hours daydreaming. It's a survival feature. Our constant imagining of a possible future helps prepare us for the future that actually comes. We've already practiced giving that speech at the office, or what we'll do if when a beloved one grows distant. The only cost is our ability to be fully present in a moment.

Here is the power of story: to make people pay attention and be fully present. The only irony is they are fully present in a story that is not their own. We weep for a Dumbledore who never lived, thrill at a first kiss that wasn't ours, and experience the terror of being chased by a psychotic killer while safely resting a theater seat.

The effect is just as powerful when we curl up with a book. It's the story that captivates us, not the sound and pictures.

One way cognitive scientists describe human consciousness is a story the brain tells itself. We become the hero of our story, and our friends and family the supporting cast. Anyone who opposes us becomes the villain, of course. Viewing consciousness this way explains why story captivates us: The very structure of a story emulates how we understand the world.

This gives story some incredible power — and I don't just mean the experience. I'm talking about the way that story changes us. Stories can place you in the shoes of someone else — not just wizards or starship commanders, but people with different life experiences in this world.

When I, a man, read the memoir of a woman, my brain begins to live her story and understand it in a way I can't reach any other way. When I, a white person, read a story with a protagonist of color, my consciousness expands to understand marginalized perspectives in a manner unavailable to my rational mind.

Story is the ultimate conveyor of empathy and solidarity.

We also learn from story. When a protagonist encounters new information, our brains treat it like something we've learned ourselves, but without our usual cognitive defense toward new information. Story bypasses our defenses and speaks directly into our minds.

We even emulate the behaviors we see in beloved protagonists. If you read about a protagonist who votes, you are more likely to vote yourself. The emotional engagement we have with a story predicts our behavioral change.

One study showed the shift in oxytocin levels in our blood were a consistent predictor for how much money someone would give to a charity after hearing a story about who the charity serves.

Story is one of our oldest and most powerful technologies. For those who want to drive change in our world, learn to tell stories well. Foster a relentless focus on captivating an audience with drama, triumph, sorrow, and joy.

But be careful. You are wielding a powerful tool that can shape how people see the world. Be a good steward of this gift.

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