I believe that stories are incredibly important, possibly in ways we don’t understand… in giving us empathy and in creating the world that we live in.
~ Neil Gaiman ~
Even though it is a new year, the struggle to live with and make sense of the world and its current political and social challenges remains.
At the Golden Globe Awards, Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award since the award’s inception in 1952. She began her acceptance speech by telling the story, of herself as a young black girl watching the first black man, Sidney Poitier receive an Oscar for his performance in the movie, The Lilies of the Field. As she described the significance of that moment to her, you could feel her emotion, imagine what it must have been like to be that young child, sitting on the floor of her home, watching a man of color win an award, and how it ignited her dreams.
Story has many magical powers. One is the ability to create empathy by allowing your imagination to step into an experience, a place, a situation, even a person’s life, that you might not otherwise be able to do.
Another story, posted on Twitter, explained the importance of representation and inclusion. Inclusion is a concern for many arts and writing groups, especially as political leaders provoke rather than solve issues of racism and other isms that divide people.
The author of the thread on Twitter shared her approach to understanding privilege that she teaches to her middle grade students, using the example of being right-handed. She has them think about what a challenge it is to be left-handed. Yet most people never think about the privilege of being right-handed because the world is oriented for right-handedness.
In the post, Jen, the author, shares a theory first described by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the theory of doors and mirrors.
“The idea of windows and mirrors is pretty simple: That when we see ourselves in a book, it’s a mirror, reflecting ourselves back to us. When we peer through and see something different, that’s a window.”
Everyone needs both mirrors and windows. Without mirrors it is difficult to fully comprehend the totality of who you are and could be and how you might find your place in the world.
But without windows, your world stays too small and limited. Your understanding and therefore your ability to empathize with others is stunted.
Stories that are windows onto disability, race, ethnicity, sex, age, religion, class and other identifiers, can ignite and fuel empathy.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Recently, a mentally ill woman made the news when she was forcibly removed from a Baltimore hospital, dropped at a bus stop in no more than a hospital gown and socks in 30-degree weather. Her story hit the internet because someone took the time to record video of the hospital’s security guards putting the woman out in the cold. The video told a story that obviously created empathy as it was shared and shared again.
In the same week, in response to a callous and denigrating remark by the president about Haiti and other countries, there were video online responses, powerful, personal stories. Anderson Cooper spoke about being in Haiti right after the earthquake when a five-year-old boy (the age of my grandson Andrew) was pulled from wreckage after existing for a week on rain water. In another video, a woman spoke of her immigrant parents coming to this country knowing no one, not knowing the language, and the courage it took to begin their lives anew.
Stories that stirred empathy.
Stories that provided windows and mirrors.
As creatives, you have the power to provide windows and mirrors for others, to help them find their places in the world, and to help expand that world into new perspectives and understandings. To stand in the shoes of others.
As Barbara Kingsolver says, “Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It’s the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own.”
There has been too much meanness, too much pain, too much denigration in past months. If we fail to practice empathy, we will lose the war for life.
You need to create. To paint, to compose, to sing and dance and perform.
To tell stories of power and truth, of imagination.
To provide mirrors and windows.