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Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

How art invites empathy and why we need that right now

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Still from “Moonlight” (2016)
Ar 161109549
Still from “Moonlight” (2016)
Ep 161109549
A 5-year-old boy, identified in news reports as Omran Daqneesh, sits in an ambulance after reportedly being pulled out of a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria.

Mahmoud Raslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ep 161109549
A 5-year-old boy, identified in news reports as Omran Daqneesh, sits in an ambulance after reportedly being pulled out of a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria.

Mahmoud Raslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” But this is a particularly divided point in American history, one during which empathy often feels scarce. The 2016 election has elicited vitriol, frustration and suspicion from just about every American citizen; and those feelings aren’t only directed at our government, but also toward each other.

So what can help? Art, that great arouser of empathy. Movies, paintings, poems or books forcing you inside the heads of people you’ll never be; people who cheat on their spouses or travel to Antarctica, who are braver or surer than you, of a different gender or religion. When we immerse ourselves in the perspectives of others, their viewpoints blossom inside our brains and germinate there. Even if the perspective seems foolish or impossible – if the art is moving, we cannot help but be a tiny bit convinced.

Art is people trying to make sense of the world. We compose, write, draw or choreograph in order to work out human motivations, desperate to discover meaning and purpose in our numbered days. In life, everything feels random and messy, but in art, life is as it should be. There is closure. There is control. Characters say what they need to. They do the things we wish we could. We cannot get inside others’ heads in actuality; we can talk to each other and try to connect, but there are always barriers. One person might hold back, afraid of another’s judgment. Maybe we speak different languages. Maybe we don’t ask the right questions. Stories and dramas do wonders for effortless human interiority.

It’s harder, of course, to feel empathy for people who are different from us. Friends, family and even relatable celebrities are easy, but Trump supporters, Clinton enthusiasts, Bernie bros, anyone who we don’t recognize in ourselves? Much trickier. Too frequently we become dismissive or contemptuous, refusing to entertain what “the other side” believes. The more you try to comprehend the incentives and fears of others, the stronger your theoretical empathy muscle will grow.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that after reading “Harry Potter,” participants showed greater empathetic responses to people in LGBT communities, immigrants and other outsider groups. J.K. Rowling’s books are filled with characters battling fantastical prejudice – squibs, werewolves, half-bloods – and readers were better able to understand real-life marginalization post-Potter.

Nameless statistics don’t affect us much, though specific ones do. Hearing about thousands of people killed in Syria means nothing; seeing the now-infamous photo of a little boy covered in dust and blood after being hit by an airstrike in Aleppo is heart-wrenching. When we identify with a precise character, we bring ourselves to care (the ability to stay numb to vaguer tragedies is probably a human defense mechanism). Actors who go “method” are often praised (Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger) because they purposefully blur the line between their real selves and a role. We’re more affected, watching these obviously empathetic performances on-screen.

Art is what we all have in common. People of every political leaning, disposition and geographic locale are seduced by movies, television, music. Films like “12 Years a Slave” and “American History X” or TV series like “The Wire” and “Orange is the New Black” shed light on the discrimination people of color face in America, both historically and currently. “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk” allow audience members a peek inside the pain of sexual oppression. A double whammy like “Moonlight” (in city theaters now, following a debut at Telluride) illustrates a black teenager wrestling with his sexuality in a judgmental, unaccepting community. Cinematic cancer stories like “50/50” and “The Fault in Our Stars” render us more knowledgeable about living with disease. Movies such as “Gummo,” “Winter’s Bone” and “Monster” show the hopelessness many white, impoverished people in our country feel. And “American Sniper” and “Saving Private Ryan” explore the brutality of war and the post-traumatic effects violence has on even the toughest soldiers.

It need not be a work of labor or artistic excellence in order to make a difference. A video recently posted on Twitter, recorded on the phone of a black man, captures a white supremacist screaming at him in Memphis. His crime? Pulling ahead of the angry fellow in traffic. (Maybe it was bad driving, but that doesn’t justify this response). The white man calls the videographer the n-word, tells him black lives don’t matter, that HIS life doesn’t matter. Yet the black driver remains calm and polite, having dealt with this type of outburst before. I’ve never been spoken to by a stranger in such a fashion – so it’s essential and valuable for me to see how viciously a person of another race is treated in the same country I call home. It’s hard to consider the predicaments of others when you have an entirely divergent experience. But no one is less human or real than you simply because they are different. Art is the most accessible method we have of walking a mile in another’s shoes.