By Angela Noel
January 4, 2018
In 2018 I want to perform radical acts of empathy.
I first heard the phrase, “reading is a radical act of empathy” at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis during an open house for writers. Months later I heard author Kelly Barnhill, winner of 2017 Newberry Medal for her book The Girl Who Drank the Moon say the same thing on a children’s podcast, Brain’s On. “Reading is an act of radical empathy” she said, ” . . . It’s a reminder that my own point of view is not the only one . . . We have to be able to be another person . . . so we can stop being such selfish jerks.”
Author Sunil Yapa, interviewed in January 2016 by Lit Hub about his debut novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, may be responsible for this idea. He says:
We live in a world in which our lives are linked with people thousands of miles away. Each person has a real life. Empathy is a radical act, particularly when you use it to connect with people who are very different from you . . . In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences. Of course, another word for that is “reading.”
But whoever said it first, or said it best, the impact on me remains the same: I have work to do.
A few months ago I listened to a podcast produced by National Public Radio called Code Switch. The roundtable of participants discussed what it meant to truly be an ally to people of color, or the LGBTQ community, or to any non-dominant group. Again and again the theme emerged: An ally doesn’t name him or herself an ally and call it good. An ally is an actor, one who shows up not just in word, but in deed.
I was reminded of this idea yet again when I read a post from Your Fat Friend on Medium entitled, A letter from the fat person on your flight. The author concludes her piece with this:
You don’t have to make a scene. You just have to show up.
Show fat people — like me — that I’m not alone. Show me that you noticed. Show me that you know the size of my body isn’t carte blanche for casual cruelty. Show me the deep decency and goodheartedness that warm your beautiful face. Realize their promise in your actions.
In 2018 I want to practice what it means to be an ally, to show up for others and to practice radical acts of empathy.
Despite not knowing what this means yet, how I’ll show up, or exactly what I’ll do, I believe I can start by challenging myself to read more broadly. For example, I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi in 2017 for both my in real life book club and for Just Another Book Club’s November selection. To say I found it extraordinary does not adequately express how I felt about the writing, story, characters, and author’s commitment to the journey of storytelling from the heart.
Clearly, I can do more than that. I know I can. Maybe I’ll be the sympathetic passenger Your Fat Friend hopes for. I’m not sure what situations I’ll find myself in. But I’m determined to find the courage within myself to stand up when called. I’m a little afraid and have much to learn. I must, however, be purposeful and committed if I’m to become more than a selfish jerk.
After all, empathy is a radical ACT. And I’m ready.
Your turn: Will you help me? What do you think are actions of empathy for others?
Featured photo credit: Jeff Sheldon from Unsplash