Imagination and Empathy

At a recent conference, I was asked to identify the dispositions that I valued most in a learner.   A list of words was supplied to help advance our thoughts on the question.  It included words like: resilient, innovative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative.  I selected and defended the imaginative disposition for many of the typical reasons.  I spoke about how imagination inspires innovation and how it creates a movie in the mind of readers that is necessary for reading comprehension but I never talked about one of the more important reasons that I have learned since then. Namely, the importance of imagination for developing empathy for others. J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech called, Very Good Lives, recently helped me connect the two.  In this post, I reflect on the relationship between imagination and empathy and suggest a few strategies for developing both in ourselves and others.  

What is imagination?

During the course of her commencement speech, Rowling acknowledges the role of the imagination in innovation and invention but emphasizes its transformative power.  The transformation Rowling envisions isn’t just a changed mind but also a changed heart.  In other words, she understands the imagination to help us feel what other people feel, without ever experiencing their circumstances.  

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

J.K. Rowling

How does imagination produce empathy?

According to Rowling, imagination creates empathy by allowing us to think ourselves into other peoples places.  She illustrates this from her own life telling how an early day job at Amnesty International’s headquarters required her to read horrific stories of tortured victims, executions, kidnappings and rapes.  These stories changed her life forever because she was able to think herself into the place of the victims she read about.

“Unlike any other creatures on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced.  They can think themselves into other peoples places.”  

J. K. Rowling

The evidence of this transformative impact in Rowling’s life is everywhere in her writings.  The Dursley’s treatment of Harry Potter in one small example of how Rowling invites us to feel her own compassion for those victimized and oppressed.  In her famed Harry Potter series, the Dursleys are a family of three, composed of Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Harry is an orphan who is forced to live with the Dursley’s after his parents are murdered by the power-hungry Lord Voldemort.  The Dursley’s keep Harry safe but treat him harshly, including confining him to a cupboard, locking him in his bedroom without meals and treating as their servant.  As the reader, thinks themselves into Harry’s place, they are provided with an opportunity to feel the loneliness, rejection and powerlessness of anyone in his position.     

Those who refuse to imagine

Of course, imagination is not automatic and sometimes it is even suppressed.  Rowling’s speech contrasts the imaginative person with the unimaginative.  Those who refuse to know about suffering and intentionally plug their ears to the voice of its victims.   

And many chose not to use their imagination at all….they refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages; they close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

J.K. Rowling

Rowling extends this logic to show that those who don’t choose empathy actually participate in acts of evil through their apathy.  

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.  For without committing an outright act of evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy. 

J. K. Rowling

Cultivating Imagination and Empathy

Reading Rowling address challenged me to think about how I am intentionally taking time to read and listen to those who are less advantaged or suffering.  It also made me think about how I’m providing opportunities to empathize and take action on behalf of the vulnerable groups in my classroom.  I thought of two units that I have used in the past to create these spaces for empathy.  The first required my Grade Seven students, to complete a personalized novel study using a historical fiction novel where the hero/heroine is from a different culture, class and race than their own and suffers physically or emotionally in some way.  

Another opportunity I have given students to practice empathy for others is an oral storytelling unit.  To prepare for the final project in this unit, students are asked to read part of a biography on the hero of their choice who has overcome some type of adversity.  In the end, the story is told from the first person perspective–as if they were the hero.  Last year, I can remember listening to one girl in my class telling the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move bus seats in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  At points in the story, she embodied the voice of Parks so well that it felt as though Parks was there telling us the story in person.  The class rose and gave her a standing ovation when she finished.  This was just one opportunity to identify with a person who did not have the same privileges that many of us enjoy.    

Taking Action

In the last part of her speech to the Harvard graduates, J.K. Rowling sounds a call to action that challenges the class to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless—to really enter into their story.  I hope you were challenged, as I was, to do the same.  

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existance but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.

J.K. Rowling

 I would love to hear more examples of how you are giving students opportunities to raise their voice on behalf of the those who have none in the comments below.  I’ve attached the video to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech below. 

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