Is there a sadder story than that of Karen Klein, the 68-year-old bus monitor who was taunted into tears by a handful of middle-schoolers as they videotaped her distress for their apparent later pleasure?
If so, it's Amanda Todd, the Canadian teenager who was bullied into suicide. After she had already changed schools once due to cyber-harassment, an anonymous Facebook user posted a topless photo of her on the site and alerted her new classmates to its presence. Todd's classmates mocked and teased her, leading to one suicide attempt by drinking bleach. After recovering from the first attempt, she was subject to additional abuse, hounded by a kind of virtual mob up to the moment she was found hanged in her home.
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What these incidents and others like them demonstrate is a disturbing and apparently dangerous lack of empathy with the pain of others.
Sara Konrath of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the University of Michigan measures self-reported empathy levels among college students. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, according to Konrath, college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.
The empathy decline has been paired with a narcissism spike, making the current generation, in Konrath's words, "One of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history."
While these sorts of findings may provoke alarm, we should acknowledge that Konrath is not pushing the panic button, declaring that if empathy is "sick," it is more like "a few days in bed," rather than "you have six months to live" sick.
I agree. I spend my days as a teacher of college students and have done so for the last 12 years; I can report from firsthand observation that the young people I encounter are often lovely and kind human beings whom I could not imagine engaging in the sort of monstrous behavior marked by the Klein and Todd incidents.
And yet, these incidents are reported with distressing frequency.
Fortunately, we have a cheap and widely available remedy for the empathy gap: reading.
It's been long theorized that reading can help increase our sense of empathy, but we now have hard evidence that this is true in the form of a study by Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University. He asked his subjects to read a story meant to engender empathy for the story's characters. After the subjects finished the story, Johnson dropped six pens to the floor. The subjects that experienced the deepest connection with the characters were more likely to assist in picking up the pens.
While this experiment might seem limited, it seems plausible that reading heightens our sense of empathy. The act of reading involves seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Even casual readers can recall a time they've been "transported" by a book, exchanging their senses for another's.
Fiction is probably the chief source of moral instruction in my life. Judy Blume taught me more about life than anyone other than my parents. Tim O'Brien's writing about Vietnam has caused me to side with the doves.
Amanda Todd pleaded for sympathy in the form of a YouTube video sharing her pain, but it led to only more abuse. Karen Klein told the boys on the bus, "I am a person, too. I shouldn't be treated this way." But those boys couldn't see that at the time. Only after viewing the video did one of the boys say, "I was disgusted and could not believe I did that."
Make the world a better place; give a kid a book.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys
2. “Judging a Book by Its Lover” by Lauren Leto
3. “The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg
4. “The Jewish Husband” by Lia Levi
5. “Annexed” by Sharon Dogar
— Suzanne W., Lake in the Hills
In her email request, Suzanne realized she saw a pattern in her own reading, and I have to agree. We see a clear bent toward stories of Jewish culture and identity. My dilemma is if I should feed that hunger further or send her on a tangent. In this case, I’m going in a straight line: “The World Without You” by Joshua Henkin.
1. “No Such Thing as Silence” by Kyle Gann
2. “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner
3. “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu
4. “Zone One” by Colson Whitehead
5. “Flatscreen” by Adam Wilson
— Gareth H., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Gareth also sees his own pattern, saying he’d “practically puked” Brooklyn on me. In this case, I’m taking him out of the borough to the West Coast for Antoine Wilson’s “Panorama City.”
1. “But Beautiful” by Geoff Dyer
2. “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio De La Pava
3. “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro
4. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
5. “The Tunnel” by William Gass
— Derek G., Seattle
I bet not too many readers know that one of the best independent presses in the country that specializes in literature off the beaten path is located in Champaign, but Dalkey Archive Press, is indeed headquartered there. They happen to be the publisher of a new addition of Derek’s recommendation, “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” by David Markson.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun