Humans are so similar. We have the same fears, the same angst. We fear death, a higher being, something happening to people we love, being cast out. Even though I've never been to war, Things They Carried resonated with me because I can imagine myself reacting the same - with the same cruelty, with the same apathy - and on the other hand, with the same loveliness or goodness. Literature reveals the ultimate brokenness in humans.
We talked about how stories connect us all. Even the antagonist can evoke empathy; the worst bad guy can reveal our weaknesses or fears. We love the character who makes mistakes. The one who gets sad or messes up. We're all clawing our way through this life, trying to grip onto the closest outcropping on the crag. A character can show us those outcroppings, belay us on the difficult climbs. This is why I am passionate about reading, writing, and teaching language arts. I see this power of story every day. Students greet me first thing in the morning about what they read or finished, what resonated with them, what they want to read next. They also reach out about things they NEED to read - they've lost a pet, a mother is sick, a friendship is fraying at the seams, parents are separating. Do I know any books about that? YES! Stories create empathy - when we take off the exterior of a character and look inside, he/she is just like us. Research shows that people who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don't. Does that surprise you? It doesn't surprise me. Stories show us the inner lives of characters and help us see that what's in their hearts are the same things in ours. I've often said I'm amazed at the honesty of great authors. They "go there." When they do, I'm always surprised that they name something that I've felt and wouldn't admit to anyone! That connects us, too. The best characters are ones that are imperfect. The ones who might get angsty, broody, angry, or resentful. They're real. Then they get better. They find a way to grow. So should we. And in books in which they don't get better, we see warnings or cautionary tales. That's why we read books, look at great art, listen to cacophonous or beautiful music, watch funny, sad, romantic, or violent movies or t.v. shows. The power of a story.
Here are videos of some of my favorite writers talking about the power of stories:
And lastly, to plug Penny Kittle's video about choice, don't forget, if you're a teacher, to balance the English Language Arts curriculum with CHOICE. Be a voracious reader yourself, and recommend stories to your students. They're hungry for stories, but they need to be stories they want to read. We know classics need to be taught, and they should be, but they're not always the stories kids are living or needing. See what happens when kids choose their own books: