A guest post by Annesly Young.
“I Hate Reading.”
When I was in high school, this statement marked you as one of the cool kids who was too busy partying with their friends, being captain of the varsity sports team, or becoming the next Steve Jobs to stick their nose in a book. Only the antisocial, directionless introverts spent their spare time curled up with a Jane Austen or Stephen King novel.
But reading is more than just a hobby for the sweater-wearing, coffee-drinking types. It’s not confined to pages in a book; audiobooks, e-books, podcasts, music, and TV shows are all forms of reading. We can read a room and even a person. Reading, at its core, is simply listening and internalizing. It’s the art of recognizing a story and submitting yourself to it.
An Escape … and a Responsibility
Stories have plot, which makes life interesting. Our brains are literally created with an ingrained sense for stories. That’s why it’s so easy to get sucked into a good TV show or book—they give us a more immediate fix for the stories we all crave.
But there’s more to stories than a pleasurable escape. With every story comes a responsibility: to process and understand it as it is told, not how you relate to it. Of course, applying a story to your own life isn’t a bad thing—it can actually be very helpful. But we all know that person who turns the conversation back on themselves, responding to your story with an “I feel like,” or “That reminds me of when I,” and we walk away not really feeling heard or understood. Bad listening and bad reading aren’t all that different.
Beyond the Bookstore
The concept of reading well has even poured over into the medical field. Institutions like the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University have begun programs in Integrative and Narrative Medicine, where healthcare professionals are being trained in the art of listening to patient stories and human connection. Dr. Rita Charon, founder of Columbia’s program, has this to say on the topic:
So right from the beginning, mainstream medical models are centered around a disease — either diagnosing it, or treating it, or preventing it. Right? ... So it is a radical turn to say, 'Even if I know a whole lot about cardiology or even if I’m a gynecologist and know a whole lot about reproductive health, let’s start our work by simply listening to what the patient brings into the office.'
Attentive listening and empathy are skills that are becoming increasingly valued in medicine, as medical experts are finding that human connection can actually promote physical healing.
What Does This Mean for Reading?
It means that stories actually have the power to heal us. They have a built-in relationship—the teller and the listener—that humans are literally wired for. We crave community and to be known by others. Reading is an avenue to enter into someone else’s experiences, to live another’s life, and become humbly aware that there is a world outside of our own.
These two words are some of the most intimate in our human language. Sharing our stories opens a door for others who may have similar experiences and can free us from loneliness. We are able to lift the burden of isolation from each other when we discover how much we have in common, and then build one another up in a community of love and support.
The #MeToo movement powerfully embodies the result of storytelling and shared experiences, creating a space for women to come forth with their stories that inspired thousands more to follow. Not only did this movement call for social change and justice, but it created a huddle of women with similar experiences who would have otherwise remained alone in their pain. There are very real fears surrounding personal stories, but to be read by someone desiring to understand and connect is, well, the basis of love.
The Stories We Tell Each Other
We all have stories we tell ourselves. But when we tell those same stories to others, we may find that healing comes on the other side of vulnerability. Taking our stories out of our heads and holding them out to others may bring in different perspectives, like different angles of light reflecting to catch new meanings and views that we couldn’t have seen on our own.
One semester, my professor had our class partner up and share an emotionally painful story with our partner, who then had to practice empathetic listening and retell the story back to us. I ended up with my professor, which was a little funny to me, but I quickly sobered as she told me the story of when she’d wrecked her bike and broken her leg as a teenager. It was evident that for her, this accident was something she was deeply ashamed of because her parents hadn’t been able to afford a hospital visit.
When I retold her story, I said, “I don’t understand why you seem to feel so guilty. You were only a kid, and mistakes happen.”
To my surprise, she said, “Really? But it was completely my fault, wasn’t it?” After 50 years, my professor was still holding onto the idea that she was to blame for her accident and the consequences. She’d placed an unnecessary burden on herself because of her family’s financial situation. Afterwards, she actually thanked me. “I just always assumed I was to blame. I never even considered giving myself grace.”
When we’re wrapped up in the emotions and consequences of an event, we can’t always see the truth. Good listeners, and readers, pull us out of our mess and provide clearings for healing and new insights. As readers, our voices matter. We may just have the right angle to help someone see a different version of their story.
A Role of Service
Reading can be an escape, but it can also be a descent into another’s pain. From books, to medicine, to movements, to mere conversation, the deep empathy forged through storytelling can build a community of support and love as we seek to truly know one another. We serve one another when we read. We carry each other’s struggles and victories. We internalize a story and allow it to add to the way we relate to the world. To read is to partake in the story of another soul; what pursuit could possibly be more humbling?