We got in bed very late last night. The last few weeks have been discombobulated to say the least. I was exhausted and drained. I had already settled down once only to realize I left my book in the other room and had to get up to retrieve it (knowing full well that it would be a miracle if I made it three sentences before my eyes closed involuntarily). No sooner had my head hit the pillow again did she call.
I shouted across the hall, asking for what she needed.
She asked me to come to her.
I said no.
Mere hours earlier we’d talked about crying wolf, for an unrelated reason, as I drove home from school. She’s my crying-wolfer at bedtime. She’ll call me in to pick up a blanket that fell off the bed, or request I make her a water bottle that she was supposed to make herself before bedtime, or ask me to find her special stuffed animal for snuggling, and sometimes to tell me something ridiculous that happened at school.
As I felt utterly ready to be done with the day, I told her that if she needed something then she needed to get up and come to ME this time. She’s nearly 10 years old, for goodness’ sake. It’s time for them to play a part in the tending. I don’t have to always be the one who gets up, right?
She walked into our bedroom wrapped in a blanket with tears streaming down her face. Shocked I gasped, “what happened!? what’s wrong? Did something happen at school today?” (This is her pattern. If something upsetting happens, she puts it out of mind until bedtime and it all comes crashing down). My husband sagely chimed in with “was it something in your book?” and all she could manage was a nod. Somehow he always knows what she’s thinking. She asked if I could please join her in her bed, her sacred safe place. So, duly chastised for my selfishness, I told her I most certainly would.
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
She’s reading Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. I bought it for her because she loved The One and Only Ivan and this book by the same author was reviewed to be just as recommended. Before my kids got older I had planned to pre-read every single book they ever read. It was my duty as their parent. But alas, the time arrived and that is simply impossible, at least by me. I had to strike a compromise. So I relied on reviews alone and set her off.
Apparently the main character and his family were evicted from their home and lived in their car. Then they got an apartment but they lost it and had to live in their car again. And then perhaps another apartment and the car. Finally the family finds a real house, a home, and moves in only to learn that they’ve been forced to leave once more. The main character, Jackson, goes into his bedroom and breaks down. He cries.
And it was this that caused my sweet little soul, who feels ever more deeply than I possibly could, to weep. She wept for an imaginary boy who lost his imaginary bedroom in his imaginary home.
Someone was talking to me about empathy with adolescent aged children recently. I can’t quite recall the conversation but it was something about the ability to truly place oneself into the shoes of another is something they haven’t quite mastered. They are wading into these waters and learning what real empathy encompasses.
THIS is why I want them to read. THIS is why I want them to have stories.
Of course I want them to learn good vocabulary words and more complex sentence structure. Of course I want them to enjoy moral lessons. Of course I want them to learn how to effectively communicate and comprehend what others are saying. But goodness gracious, is there anything else in this world that can really give you a sense of what it felt like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes than reading a book that opens a glimpse into the heart and mind of another human being?
We can imagine ourselves in the Jewish Ghetto in Poland and try to conjure up the feelings. But does that hold a candle to reading the diary pages of someone who endured it? We can imagine ourselves on the ships sailing to the New World and finally seeing land after months at sea. But does that compare in the slightest to the first hand words of someone who trod those paths? In some ways, it is like the Grand Canyon. I knew it was big. Everyone knows it is big. But to behold it in person? There is no substitute. The only shortcut is someone with the gift of words to describe how it made them FEEL. This is the difference between an author who merely tells you verses showing you.
Whether you have been blessed with a double-heaped serving of empathy or a more meager share, reading a book gives you a LANGUAGE with which to express the things hidden deep within your soul that perhaps had no prior outlet. There is such power in having words that convey what you mean. In a world that can make us all feel powerless victims, the means to communicate can be much mightier than a sword.
Featured image by Carey Pace.