What My Local Library Taught Me About Empathy


When I tell people I grew up in a small town, I always elaborate by sharing that it is a really small town. The kind of town where you’re related to half of the population, which doesn’t top more than a few hundred people. Communities like mine all seem to have their special quirks, but one disadvantage I found, as a child who was constantly asking questions, was a lack of diversity of thought. With few people coming and going, many people shared the same kinds of lifestyles and experiences.

But a town a few miles up the road had something that changed my life. There was a library.

I was fortunate to have my grandmother live with my family for most of my adolescence. She was retired, and an avid reader, so she happily carted me up to the library as much as I wanted. I spent my summers reading every piece of classic literature I could get my young hands on. I was captivated by the stories -- and the experiences shared by and about the characters, who all seemed so foreign to me. I could travel back in time and around the world through books. I could feel what the characters felt. I didn’t know it then, but reading books -- reading stories -- was helping me to develop empathy, a skill that has given so much meaning to my life because of the importance it places on understanding others.

In this post, Perry Firth, project coordinator for Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, explains how reading high-quality fictional stories can help build empathy in three ways:

  • When stories captivate our full mental and emotional attention, they can help us build empathy.
  • Empathy can encourage us to take action to help others.
  • Stories can help dissolve bias and foster inclusiveness.

Whether reading stories in books or telling stories in person, sharing and receiving stories helps us understand others and contribute to a kinder, more thoughtful world. One of my favorite books is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” I think Atticus Finch sums it up nicely:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

I encourage everyone to dive in and view the world from as many perspectives as possible. 

Grow Your Story. Grow Your Self.
And Grow Empathy.