Empathy for Our Places

Back in December, we visited the idea that researchers have found, namely that reading literary fiction builds empathy in readers.  This post will explore a little bit more about how empathy might map onto places. As we stated last time, “We here at Placing Literature are trying to find ways that engaging in literature may be a vehicle for engaging in real places – real places where people have attachments.”

What is empathy?  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”  When you can share another person’s feelings, you can understand where they come from and are less likely to judge harshly.

What happens when we map empathy on to places?  In theory, places have experiences and emotions and histories and stories.  We can identify with places, then. This is important, because we all have mental maps or concept maps of our neighborhoods and cities. How we feel about places gets “mapped” onto our understandings of the (spatial) world.

Just like if we read more literary fiction, we can empathize with people, I hope we can begin to think more kindly of places.  Maybe we can think of them as the places where people live and raise families, where people have jobs and lives.

To use an example, Superior, Wisconsin is a place known for its bars.  Outsiders might even think of Superior as “seedy.” But, after reading The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin, one can think of those bars as places that help shape identities for bar owners and their congregants.  It’s not just a bar near a shipyard, it’s a place where people go to congregate.  It’s a community.

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