“Daddy, what do you have to study to learn to be a teacher?” Beezus asked.

Ramona had been wondering the same thing. Her father knew how to read and do arithmetic. He also knew about Oregon pioneers and about two pints making one quart.

Mr. Quimby wiped a plate and stacked it in the cupboard. “I’m taking an art course because I want to teach art. And I’ll study child development––”

Ramona interrupted. “What’s child development?”

“How kids grow,” answered her father.

Why does anyone have to go to school to study a thing like that? wondered Ramona. All her life she had been told that the way to grow was to eat good food, usually food she did not like, and get plenty of sleep, usually when she had more interesting things to do than go to bed.

When I was younger, I was told that sympathy means feeling pain for someone, while empathy means feeling someone’s pain with them. As a hospital staff chaplain I was trained to think of empathy as something very different, something much more useful.

It’s true that we should feel bad when we see others suffering, but the idea that we can get close enough to fully feel their pain––apart from maybe our dearest loved ones––is absurd, and it would be unhealthy if we could do it. A hospital chaplain who attempted that would quickly turn into a wreck, and wouldn’t be much help to their patients. When you’re terrified about a diagnosis, for example, you don’t want to see terror in the eyes of your chaplain.

One great insight of modern chaplaincy is that people who are suffering do not need someone who will feel their pain, but rather someone who sees their pain. Not “I know how you feel,” but “I’m doing my best to listen and learn how you feel.”

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona

A lot of people have pointed out that one great thing about fiction is that it helps you learn empathy of this kind: not to suffer with the characters, but to see who they are, and start to understand how they see the world.

This is the remarkable thing about the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, who died last year at age 104. When we read her books, we see the world through a young child’s eyes. Ramona’s viewpoint is different than an adult’s would be, but at the same time we can understand it. That is the core of empathy.

But the strength of the books isn’t just that we see the world through the main character’s eyes, which most novels do. YA fiction is especially good at showing us the world through the eyes of adolescents. But it seems to me that chidren’s authors usually put their characters through extraordinary adventures to drive the interest of the book. Beverly Cleary’s genius was to follow the school-age girl Ramona through completely ordinary years of her life (often called “slice of life” writing) and find the interest in the way Ramona experienced it.

Cleary took mundane episode and made them fascinating–and charming–by the way she showed them to us through Ramona’s eyes. Even when extraordinary things happen, like Ramona crashing through an attic floor and dangling halfway into the dining room below, we see Ramona’s embarrassment with her friend seeing her underwear. A lazier book might have just focused on Romana being frightened, or worried about getting in trouble; Clearly moves past that to the more complicated or surprising feelings a real child might have. The books are perfect read-alouds for a family, because the kids get to see a character who thinks like them, and parents are reminded how their own kids might see the world.

Formation through Fiction

Reading is a great skill, but it’s best when it’s also formative, and habit-building. Great books are the ones that avoid stereotypes and cliches, but not just because those things might be objectionable in the abstract. Reading great books helps kids build the habit of seeing complex characters for who they are, which forms our kids to also see complex people in real life for who they are, not for who we’d assume they are. We don’t read Ramona and say, “Now I know how a child thinks.” We read Ramona and say, “Now I know how to pay attention so I can learn better how each child I meet is seeing the world.” That is empathy.

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