Valuable advice has been offered since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, the Boston bombings — since all horrific incidents of this kind throughout our nation. Gun control, better mental health screening and treatment, reconsidering violent video games, and amped-up school security are just a few of the hot topics being debated on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else.
All of these are excellent suggestions, and all are being scrutinized. I wonder, however, if we are missing a fundamental issue that seems to underlie all of these tragic incidents: a lack of empathy.
How would I begin to address this inability of so many to be able to relate to others? Reading.
"Of course!" I can hear you exclaim at your kitchen table. "An English professor's solution to all of the world's ills would be reading!"
One of the easiest ways to learn about, understand and perhaps tolerate differences would be to read about them. Not everyone can afford to or is interested in living in foreign countries or going to college for years to get a rich-in-multiple-perspectives liberal arts education. Not everyone would move to a different neighborhood, explore worship in a different church or temple, or go out and solicit deep friendships with those who seem very unlike themselves.
In my class this semester, we explored how Frederick Douglass felt as he sneaked around learning to read and write behind the slave owners' backs. We read Zitkala-Sa's essay about being taken off the reservation as a child and put in a missionary school to be made over as a white European. The class read Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," where a young woman in the late 1800s dares to feel freedom and independence once she learns of her husband's death.
One of my students, a Muslim, is teaching us about Ramadan in his final paper. Another one, who is gay, is writing about her opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act.
You don't need a college class to get all of these different perspectives. Every day this newspaper brings me the views of so many. Any morning I may read opinions from a Syrian, a Thatcherite, a married couple struggling with communication issues, a parent dealing with the trials of raising a child, a tech geek arguing about the latest gadgets, a child talking about belief in God, and as a bonus get the loving and logical advice of Mary Worth. This is just a snippet of what I can glean from just one day's paper.
An acquaintance told me about a children's book by Lemony Snicket called "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story." In this story, a latke (potato pancake) goes around bumping into traditional Christmas icons (lights, a pine tree, a candy cane) and the latke has to explain Hanukkah to them all.
What a great way to prepare his Jewish daughter for the Christmas season — and what good reading this would be for any Christian child.
It's not enough in this increasingly complex world to give a child your well-worn copy of "The Poky Little Puppy." Empathy can be taught (to most) and we need now — more than ever — to provide as many examples of how a variety of people feel, react and reason so children can learn, understand and tolerate differences.
And we can't stop there. Teaching and learning empathy is an ongoing, life-long process. In a world so torn apart by differences, we need to constantly challenge our assumptions about others, and we can continue this enlightenment by just opening a book, a magazine — or a newspaper.
Elizabeth Keifer of Avon is a professor of English at Tunxis Community College.Copyright © 2015, CT Now