‘You never really understand a person until . . . you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ Harper Lee
Empathy is an almost forgotten art. I call it art because it’s a skill, and any skill performed well can become art. It’s a skill because it takes practice, and sensitivity, and thought, and instinct.
It’s almost forgotten because so few people practice it. It’s rare to hear someone take the time to say, ‘Well, let’s think about it from their point of view.’ It’s rare to hear anyone try and rationalise what their opponent or peer is thinking, or what motives lie behind their behaviour.
It’s hard to do. We all have a certain appearance on the outside, but we’re trapped inside our own minds, and obsessed with our own experience. Events around us, people’s behaviour and things that are said come to us through a thick filter, arriving at a wholly self-centred ego which interprets everything through its own needs. It’s hard to forcibly step outside of that, and to make our minds imagine the thought patterns of others. Even more difficult is the process of feeling as others feel – putting aside our own ME ME ME experience for a moment, and climbing into another person’s skin.
Literature is one vehicle by which we access empathy. A story takes us away from ourselves, and allows us to look into someone else’s experience. It’s easier when it’s done for us – when a writer takes us by the hand, and shows us how that someone else feels. Atticus teaches Finch about empathy, and by doing so Harper Lee teaches us, too.
It frightens me that To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, and today, in 2013, fifty-three years later, we still have a lot to learn about empathy. One novel certainly doesn’t change the world, of course; but we understand the universal truth Lee spoke. We understood it then, and we understand it now. Believing in the power of empathy or optimism is often seen as naive, but cynicism is dangerous.