“Oh no! He lost his jacket!” Even with the rather noisy window air conditioner busily breathing cool air into the room, her words were clear, concise. I shifted my gaze away from the illustrated pages of Beatrix Potter’s classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit to look upon the face of my four-year-old daughter. Her eyes meet mine. With her brows pulled downward, she pointed to Peter’s little blue jacket caught irretrievably in Mr. McGregor’s gooseberry net. “Look!” she implored.
“Yes, honey,” I replied. “I see it.”
Lying in bed later, I thought about that tiny moment of worry, the distress my little daughter exhibited for a character in a book. A character, by the way, arguably undeserving of worry or distress. After all, Peter does knowingly “disobey” the authority figure in the book, his mother. And yet, my daughter expressed her fear for Peter’s fate anyway.
I recognized the emotion: Empathy. And I thought about how reading is the way we build our capacity for this essential emotion. In my mind, Empathy might reside at the top of the emotional hierarchy. As author and scientist Maryanne Wolf writes and wonders in her book Reader Come Home (2018), “What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?” She chronicles studies out of Stanford University that show a precipitous decline in empathy taking place over the last ten years or so in our country. Wolf also describes a discussion between novelist Marilynne Robinson and then President Barack Obama during which Robinson expressed lamentation for what she perceived as a “political drift among many people in the United States toward seeing those different than themselves as the ‘sinister other.'”
As I look around at what is happening in our country, I sometimes wonder what I can do to make a difference, especially as I watch the actions and repercussions of persons in power who exhibit no empathy for those different than them at all. But then I remember the young girl who was lying next to me earlier in the evening, her eyes glued to the pages of a book I was holding. And I remember I can make a difference for her.