Fiction fosters empathy

As our generation becomes more narcissistic, fiction helps us learn and practice empathy.


Johnathan Burkhardt/THE CHIMES

Dorea Marshall, Writer

You may qualify as a narcissist. The last time someone shared a negative experience, did you actually listen or did you just wait for an opportunity to share a similar experience you had? Do you find yourself saying, “Well, if I was in their situation, I would…”? Do you shrug things off because you “cannot relate” to the discussion’s content?

The culture we live in promotes a self-centered attitude at every turn, making it difficult to remain entirely unscathed by this conceited mentality. People who blame technology and the internet for promoting this constant elevation of self are not entirely wrong. The irony is, while things like social media and Netflix fuel the narcissistic fire burning through our generation, they also possess the capacity to destroy narcissism at its roots.


Narcissism, in this context, is best defined as a lack of empathy towards others. As a generation, we continue to become worse at feeling what other people are feeling. We can watch a documentary of the horrors occurring in North Korea, and for a while we “feel bad” for those people. Yet, because we never make their pain our pain, we forget them a week later. We see unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, and their riots incite our anger because we refuse to truly understand the reason for their outcry and to cry out with them. Narcissism ignores pain that is not our own — empathy absorbs the pain of others.

Why empathize?

God calls Christians to empathy. Romans 12:15 adjures us to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” Part of the miraculous work of Christ is that we have a high priest who understands the struggle of being human, because he allowed himself to experience our struggles. Empathy serves as a way to understand those around you, and when you truly understand someone, you can truly love them. Without empathy we cannot love.

Practicing virtue

Learning empathy requires practice. Studies show people who read literary fiction empathize better than people who do not. Here, Netflix helps by providing countless fictional movies and T.V. shows at your fingertips, all inviting you to engage with characters who feel differently than you do and have different life experiences than you. When student doctors watched movies showing the patient’s perspective, it produced empathetic responses from the doctors and better care for the patients.

However, fiction is only a good teacher if you are a good student. To increase empathy, you must engage with what you watch. Mirror the characters’ emotions. Do not limit yourself to books or film, but let music and art become a way of understanding other people. You might find yourself beginning to love people more.


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