Election season is upon us. I watch HBO’s Bill Maher bang his head on the “Real Time” table in despair at the lack of communication that is possible between parties. We wade into a season of debates, hearing persistent expressions of surprise that the “other side” does not recognize the logic of a particular argument. But perhaps the surprise is unwarranted because, in fact, it is nearly impossible to convince anyone of anything via facts, charts, numbers or even abundant proof. People are not persuaded to change their opinions with facts. The brain does not respond vigorously to facts alone. But when facts are contextualized with stories, it is possible to effect peoples’ minds via the emotion and empathy engendered in the telling.
Trying to convince yourself or others that something is worthwhile or good for you simply via facts rarely yields long-term results. Facts impress in the short term but rarely engender lasting change. Facts plus empathy and emotion can and do engender change. The mind is slippery. We are not one consistent entity. We slide into varying personas and behavior depending upon the context of the present circumstances and the chemistry of the body. Low blood sugar can turn a normally mild person ornery. Exposure to a resonant psychological trigger can render anyone panicked and unreceptive. Exposure to nature can calm and restore faith in the world. To create significant change in one’s perception of the world, it is necessary to engage in emotional journeys of empathy and narrative that help us to participate in the world with others. Entering into the mindset of another person can and does alter synaptic pathways. The brain, which craves novelty, responds to narrative. And narrative stimulates empathy and emotion. Empathy is powerful. The act of empathizing with others alters perspective. Empathy via stories can transform attitude, which in turn can alter action.
Stories engage our attention and utilize the entire brain; the neuronal effect is global. On the other hand, facts use narrower aspects and smaller parts of the brain. The alchemy of fact with narrative instigates an added force to the experience of the receiver and offers more of a chance that the message will stick. The most successful non-fiction, including documentaries and news reportage, is presented in narrative form using the conventions of fiction. The Bible is essentially a collection of stories and parables that stick in the mind and serve to provoke questions, challenge assumptions and expand the empathic response. Translating complex, new scientific discoveries into understandable concepts for the general public requires great storytelling. The physicist Brian Greene is currently helping us to understand string theory and parallel universes. Sigmund Freud was a great storyteller as was Carl Sagan. They helped move the world into renewed focus via their own profound understanding and an ability to communicate to others using narrative and empathy.
Sutton is J.R Moehringer’s recently published novel about the notorious real-life mid-twentieth century American bank robber Willy Sutton, a folk-hero who was not only famous for robbing banks but for breaking out of prisons. As part of his research for the book, Moehringer visited the infamous high security Eastern State Penitentiary where Sutton was incarcerated. Sutton had spent years in the Klondike, the collection of underground cells, each no larger than a coffin, meant for special punishment. On NPR’s Fresh Air, Moehringer described the experience of entering a cell: “It was horrifying for me. I have a touch of claustrophobia. So, just to go inside, just to be led in by the curator, because it is now a National historic site, was terrifying. And my blood just stopped slugging through my veins. I stood there and I could just imagine how you could unravel psychologically. It’s not a normal cell; it’s a dungeon. … So, just the seconds that I spent in that cell was life-changing because the first thing that you think to yourself is ‘ I can’t imagine surviving this.’ And the second thing you think, if you are researching a book about Willy Sutton, is how remarkable this is that more than survive it, he had the will to live that permitted him to devise an escape.”
The steps that we take in order to enter deeply and emotionally into the lives and narratives of others create empathic journeys of discovery. We emerge from these journeys freed for a time from the prison of our own habitual worldview. The intimacy with and proximity to alternate experiences of reality do nothing less than offer us insight into the parallel universes of other lives. These journeys remind us that, in truth, we know little and can learn much. I believe that Sutton provides perhaps a more powerful reading experience because of the intense physical and imaginative empathy that Moehringer underwent for his subject. He submitted to Willy Sutton’s life experience in order to gain insight and empathy. He looked through Sutton’s eyes and experienced his narrative first-hand.
A recent article in the New York Times chronicled the event of young people tattooing onto their own bodies the exact same numbers that their grandparents who had survived the Holocaust had burned into their skin by Nazis. I find this act of the grandchildren’s’ physical memory, of empathy, of sharing in company through time very moving and stirring. Besides providing the person who has it a sense of solidarity with those who were in the camps, the act is a visible link between generations and histories. Their actions are facts in the world. This physical act of commitment is one of empathy and living memory. Their actions transcend the fact of the prison camps and make history more emotional and personal.
The theater is a complicated medium. Not only do we appeal to the audience’s sensibilities with empathy and narrative, but we also simultaneously employ spectacle, ritual, entertainment, magic, active participation and learning in the composition of a theatrical production. In addition to the fictional drama of a play, the audience also viscerally experiences the community of actors in the process of real social exchange. How the actors inhabit the space with one another and with the audience is a part of the experience of the play. Our task is to provide audiences access to the kind of empathic journeys that allow simultaneously for critical distance and compassionate intimacy.
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