Real Fiction: How to develop empathy

Girl holding heart made of lights at night. Text: Use Real Fiction (trademark) to develop empathin vicariously. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

EXPERIENCE MANY LIVES VICARIOUSLY – BY READING

Let’s start somewhere

NOTE: None of what I’m about to say is meant to ask for help or pity, and certainly not for special privileges. Just understanding. JUST. And, among those whose lives isn’t constrained, both happiness for what they have, and a little of that empathy for those who don’t have it.

Even though political events have made this development more urgent, I’m not going there: better writers than I are doing that right now.

I’m discussing the part of empathy associated with illness, chronic illness

When friends seem surprised that I’m still sick, I want to respond as a character in my novel, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY does:

“Has the word ‘chronic’ been marked in dictionaries as ‘Archaic’?”

They don’t ask this question of people who have ‘real’ illnesses such as Lupus or MS or Rheumatoid Arthritis, do they? If someone now lives with HIV, friends usually understand that there is no cure, and remission is bought by a DAILY regimen of pills under a doctor’s care.

They understand that many mental illnesses are chronic, and also managed with a drug regime – every TV viewer has seen the TV writer’s trope: a violent person who is turns out is to be pitied because he has a mental illness, and is ‘off his meds.’

Invisible illness – can’t see it, must be fake

But if you have one of the invisible illnesses, ME/CFS or FM or Gulf War Syndrome, that are not understood because they have been disbelieved by medical ‘professionals’ in general, you are expected to have made a miraculous and convenient recovery using supplements, alternative medicine, acupuncture, specialists, exercise, diet, or yoga, and are now back to full health because, the groups’ sick in-joke, “You don’t look sick.”

‘Chronic’ thus means ‘inconvenient’ to those inquiring, “Are you still sick?”

It doesn’t mean, ‘needs continuing care for symptoms that wax and wane and never go away.’ It doesn’t mean, to the friends, ‘let’s not forget her because she doesn’t have the energy to make new friends.’

And it doesn’t mean, ‘Advocate for her, because she doesn’t have the energy to do it for herself.’

Then something happens to THEM

And it is too late; they get a crash course in empathy – or not.

Until the ill one is their child, their spouse, or their parent or grandparent, and they have to provide or arrange for whatever care is necessary, ‘chronic’ is just plain inconvenient, unless it is also ‘malingering,’ ‘gold-bricking,’ ‘laziness (she’d get better if she just got out and exercised),’ or ‘playing the system so she doesn’t have to work.’

And then, unfortunately, once they understand, they are too busy to be useful – because they are taking care of said loved one, and the now know how much energy it takes to do that, and have little left for the advocacy that is so desperately needed. Catch-22.

Which brings me to the point of this essay:

There have to be other ways of developing empathy than suffering chronic illnesses in your own flesh.

One of the best – and highly underutilized – is fiction.

But not the special books for children – barely disguised non-fiction

‘Little Tommy has Cancer’ or ‘What Does Ostomy Mean’ or ‘You have diabetes – now what?’ – designed, usually, to help the child, school, teacher, or close friend understand what is going on with the child.

Not usually meant for the world in general, such a book might have a cover picture of a kid in a wheelchair, or with an oxygen supply device, or getting a shot. These books are necessary for the ‘different’ ones, the same as the Barbie with crutches is meant for the different child to see herself (as both handicapped AND held to impossible fashion standards).

They are less frequently bought for the kids who don’t have the disability, disease, or impairment – but are there in the library if necessary. These aren’t the fiction I mean, because they’re barely fiction.

Nor books (or movies) intended to promote suicide as noble

Those are just disgusting: if someone becomes broken their best option is to find a way to tidy themselves out of this world so as not to inconvenience their ‘loved ones.’

Ask any real family affected by suicide whether they feel loved by it.

Million Dollar Baby, The Ocean Within, Me Before You – it has become a trope.

I reserve judgment in the case of ‘intractable pain or depression’ – and I could not possibly judge the person who chooses this exit if it is truly intractable – though I often hope it means they have been unsuccessful at finding help. It is not a matter for fiction, because fiction always conveniently leaves out the real details. Horribly depressed and wracked by pain people can and do have ‘quality of life’ in many cases – when their need to stay alive for those same loved ones is their prime imperative. YMMV.

Alternate preventive empathy development made easy via REAL FICTION

In Real Fiction (TM) of the empathy-developing variety, characters happen to also have a disability, illness, or difference – but it isn’t the focus of the story, while always being there.

Real fiction offers the reader a way to understand without being personally overwhelmed.

The writer can go into the thoughts of the character to show inner strength balancing outer pain.

The reader is thus safe to explore the consequences and conditions set up by the writer, to understand more, to literally be a voyeur – or in modern parlance to inhabit a virtual reality – that allows the reader to experience the life of a disabled person from the inside.

This alternate reality is temporary, and can be left or abandoned if it becomes too much for the reader to bear.

Fiction allows the small details that are important to the character to emerge, rather than be lectured about.

A great example is the book (and movie) Ordinary People, by Judith Guest. A family tries to understand why their son attempted suicide – and the family dynamics digs down into the real cause.

Pride’s Children is designed to be REAL FICTION

One of the main characters is a former physician who has CFS (ME/CFS), and is no longer able to practice medicine (which requires energy and brainpower), but has retrained herself as a novelist.

The story shows the development of her change in the area of personal worthiness for her goals, triggered by an accidental meeting with a charismatic actor which then affects her whole life.

Is she correct in the assumptions she’s taken on as to her own value as a PWC (a person with CFS)? Will chronic illness limit the rest of her life? Can she hope for and desire what ‘normal’ people are allowed by society to want?

At least you don’t have to get sick to find out. You will just have to read.

And be patient. It’s taking the writer a while to finish the story.

What’s your favorite vicariously-lived life? Who would you have liked to really be?

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10 thoughts on “Real Fiction: How to develop empathy

  1. marianallen

    I normally prefer to wait until a story is complete before reading any of it, but Book 1 of PRIDE’S CHILDREN is well worth reading by itself! I had already been acquainted with several people with CFS and other physically, emotionally, intellectually fatiguing conditions, but they literally didn’t have the resources of strength to fully communicate what their lives were like — which told me all I NEEDED to know about what their lives were like. I was so grateful to read PURGATORY and empathetically experience their struggles.

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    Reply
    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      And I PROMISE not to drop the ball at the end. I take that responsibility VERY seriously – plus you should like the end of NETHERWORLD. Hehe.

      Trust me (she says, rubbing hands together).

      But it’s a slow process – today interrupted by finding out my office window was leaking freezing air because it no longer latches properly – had to have the husband help with that one – followed by me cleaning that venetian blind because we had put it off as unreachable, but I had it in my lap.

      Hint: open slats one way, lay it on the floor, dust one side; open the other way, repeat. If if hadn’t been on hands and knees, and NOT what I was planning to do during that particular time period, it would have been PERFECT – and I should have done a Youtube video. I decided to spare the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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