Have you read “Out of Darkness” by Russell Freedman?
Louise Braille, the hero in the story loses his sight due to a horrific accident he sustains in his father’s shop as a child. He and his family struggle with his diagnosis of permanent blindness and the impact his loss of vision will have on all their lives.
The author’s research and the categorization of the book as a non-fiction biography lend credibility to the story, but the most powerful elements of the novel have nothing to do with facts and everything to do with emotion. As a reader, I can feel Louise’s fear, confusion, and anger. When Braille discovers ways to learn and starts to build his own alphabet, there are also glimpses of happiness and peace.
Books Build Empathy
Good books can do amazing things for us and for our children. At the most elemental level, books like this one generate curiosity about a subject. My daughter and I certainly spent a fair amount of time researching Louise Braille and the Braille alphabet after completing “Out of Darkness.” Yet, generating interest in a topic or person is just the beginning.
Books give us a window to the lives of others. We relate to the characters. We feel their struggles. As we read, we pull from and build upon our own understanding to process the story. In short, we experience empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Since books are such a strong tool in the development of empathy, it is one of the primary reasons we chose a literature rich curriculum for our homeschool. Many people may consider empathy a soft skill or strictly useful as part of character development. As a family, we recognize empathy as a necessary tool for career satisfaction, home and family happiness, respect for the social good, and building personal strength and resilience.
Empathy in the Workplace
One of the very first lessons I was taught as an entry level veterinary student was “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The person who brings you their beloved pet or calls you for help with a colicky horse doesn’t have a vested interest in your advice or your solutions until they believe you have their best interests at heart. There is great value in being able to recognize and understand how another individual is feeling. This will guide your professional actions and can be one of the best predictors of success.
Empathy For the Social Good
Empathy helps us imagine what it might be like to be in another’s shoes. Many controversial topics in today’s headlines call for an ability to recognize and even respect another’s perspective. There is no way to agree with every person’s opinion or agenda, but it is essential to recognize another person’s motivation. Even if you don’t agree with the person advocating a particular rule or law, being able to understand their viewpoint can enable you to launch a valid counter argument and potentially offer a solution.
Empathy at Home
Anybody who has observed siblings battle over a favorite toy or a chance to ride in the front seat knows that recognizing when someone is hurt or struggling is an essential tool for keeping family peace. Sometimes siblings hit each other. Not wanting to get caught is a primary reason small children may refrain from hitting. Building empathy can help children gain respect for another person and help them to avoid hitting because they don’t want to hurt another human being. The motivation to do what’s right because it is right as opposed to out of a fear of being punished is a sign of emotional maturity of which empathy is an essential component. Later in life empathy can enable a child to grow to be a compassionate parent, loving partner, and responsible community member.
Empathy For Personal Strength and Resilience
Kids often find solidarity with characters that are experiencing circumstances similar to their own.
- grief from the passing of a family member or pet
- “Adventures with Waffles,” by Maria Parr
- pain from an injury
- “New Toes for Tia,” by Larry Dinkins
- disappointment at missing a goal
- “Dolphin Treasure,” by Wayne Grover
They also gain understanding and sympathy for those undergoing trying circumstances outside of their own experience. Examples for my children include:
- fear of personal injury or death while in a war zone
- “Twenty and Ten,” by Claire Huchet Bishop
- helplessness at being unable to access routine or required medical care
- “Mary on Horseback,” by Rosemary Wells
- sadness and hopelessness when faced with extreme poverty
- “The Family Under the Bridge,” by Natalie Savage Carlson
One of my favorite memes says, “Be kind to everyone you meet; You never know if they have a toddler at home.” While hilarious, it also points out a very common fallacy. We tend to believe that how others treat us is a reflection of ourselves. If someone is mean to us or doesn’t seem interested in us, a default human reaction is to believe that we did something wrong.
Empathy empowers us to respect and understand that the other person may simply be having a bad day. They may have experienced a personal loss or tragedy. They may be feeling jealous or intimidated. They may in fact have a toddler at home! Knowing that another person’s actions are not a direct representation of us or our personal values strengthens us and can help us become more resilient.
Thanks to empathy we are able to more beneficially steer our careers. We are better prepared to contribute to the social good. We are able to have more mature and beneficial relationships with others, especially family. Empathy also helps us become more resilient after an unpleasant event or negative interaction with another person. Thank goodness homeschooling gives us the freedom to put books that build empathy into the hands of our children!
Interested in building empathy with books?
Sonlight has an amazing line up of stories that focus on character as much as academic!
The image below is perfect for pinning for later!