We live in a time of extremism. We are divided along fault lines of who we vote for, who we pray to (or don’t), what language we speak, who we are and who we love. In the news each day, I see people building walls and pulling triggers. We don’t even want to know the other we hate so much.
When I was in school, I remember having to read novels about the Holocaust, slavery, racism, and immigration. At the time, I didn’t understand why I needed to read them. The Holocaust was in the past, as was the slave trade. I wasn’t Chicano or a woman in 17th century America. What was the point? It was more than just a history lesson; it was an exercise in encountering people and cultures that were nothing like the one I was growing up in. I realize now that our teachers were trying to instill in us an appreciation of the great diversity that exists in the world. Those books were our vehicle out of our quiet mountain town and into the lives of people we would never otherwise meet. In the process, I also gained a sense of the tragedy of the concentration camps and the plantations — and how fear and hate still eat away at the fabric of our society.
It is much harder to hate someone when you know their story. I can’t help but wonder how our world would be different if more people actively sought out stories of the other. If the heroes and heroines in our novels look and sound like us, we are training ourselves on some level to only sympathize with people who look and sound like us. If, on the other hand, we expose ourselves to diverse protagonists representing other genders, religions, nationalities, orientations, and experiences, we give ourselves room to expand our sense of empathy to encompass all of humanity.
Walk in someone’s shoes for a few hundred pages. Seek out books, movies, and music that speaks to the immigrant, Muslim, or trans experience and you might start to understand someone who doesn’t live in your little world. Understanding breaks down barriers of “us” and “them,” of separation, of hate. If more people were willing to step out of their comfort zone to immerse themselves in their neighbor’s narrative — even if it’s only in the pages of a book — I think there would be fewer slurs, bombs, bullets, and bloodshed.
Let us trade extremism for compassion. And let us begin by picking up a book.
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