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Good Stories Have Our Sympathy

January 27, 2016

 I’ve noted in The Pillar before the leadership achievements of Gail Kelly.  I’ve also pointed out that part of what made this former Westpac CEO successful was her ability to empathize with others.  She has what you might call emotional knowledge. 
 
How can we train this virtue?
 
Part of the answer is by engaging good stories.

Compelling literature presents us with the emotions, motivations, attitudes, and perspectives of its characters.  Whether it’s the forgiveness of the biblical Joseph toward his betraying brothers or the resentful spirit that the Prodigial Son received from his older sibling ... whether it's the loyal friendship of Samwise Gamgee toward Frodo or the autobiographical account of Churchill’s resolve during WWII ... well-written narratives can help us discern how people face and deal with challenges.  In short, stories have power to illumine the human condition.

 

But rather than simply helping us to understand the emotions and reactions of others, literature also invites us to sympathize with them.  According to British scholar Roger Scruton (pictured here), “through literature we can ‘learn what to feel’” by imagining ourselves in certain characters’ situations and assessing their reactions as heroic or villainous, worthy of imitation or critique.

 

"We can rehearse in imagination the knowledge that we might one day require ... through imagination we reach emotional knowledge which can prepare us for the joys and calamities that we will some day encounter.”  

 

The emotional sympathy that literature can evoke not only is useful for training virtue but also is potentially comforting and healing.
 
Bryan Doerries learned this first hand. 
In an interview on ABC News Radio, this classics translator explained that he had lost loved ones growing up, but he found through reading Greek tragedies that he wasn’t alone in his grief.  “[I]t was out of that sense of personal connection to plays that all of a sudden [they] seemed like they had been written for me.”

 

 Doerries began to share these classic Greek stories with U.S. soldiers and found that they had amazing power to “communalize the experience of war.”  At that point in time, he says, “it was a career ending gesture to raise your hand and say that you were struggling with an invisible wound.”  Through encountering and sympathizing with characters in Sophocles’ plays, however, soldiers returning from war came to see that “they're not alone in the room ... they are not alone across the country and the world ... they are not alone across time.”

 

The U.S. Military has hired Doerries as a defence contractor to stage a hundred performances of Sophocles’ plays each year.  Doerries has discovered the immense power that literature has on the lives of soldiers: his favourite stories have their sympathy.

 

Liberal Arts and Long-Term Success

 

As the above post suggests, the liberal arts are valuable for those interested in excelling in ... well, being human.  Many students and their parents, however, think that the liberal arts aren’t as helpful when it comes to excelling in high-paying jobs and career success.
 
A
recent report on earnings and long-term career paths for uni graduates suggests otherwise.
 
“The report compares earnings trajectories and career pathways for liberal arts majors with the earnings trajectories and career pathways for those majoring in science and mathematics, engineering, and professional or pre-professional fields like business or education.”  As it turns out, the former actually do better financially than the latter over the course of their working careers.
 
One of the key findings: At peak earnings ages, liberal arts graduates “earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields.”
 
One possible explanation for this is that liberal arts graduates tend to be selected for
leadership positions as they progress through their careers.  That might be due not only to their critical thinking skills but also to the emotional knowledge they developed through reading good literature!

 

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