I spent a week visiting Disney World, and during seven straight days I experienced multiple rides and shows, diverse meals, but above all, endless lines to enter the attractions—even considering I had fast passes—, because if there is a common denominator in all Disney’s parks is huge crowds. Quite honestly, I’m not a huge fan of multitudes and even try to avoid them—a feat almost impossible to achieve in Disney—, but I must confess something that draws my attention about Disney’s multitudes is diversity. People from all around the world, with different ethnicities, beliefs and religions gather around this place, all pulled by the commercial gravity of Mickey Mouse.
So, with so much time at my disposal while I waited at the ride’s line, I used my time to do what I know to do best: observe people.
For writers or aspiring authors as myself, who have studied the craft of writing, one of the most recurrent exercises to develop writing skills is to sit in a crowded place and observe people, and based on their appearance, behavior and actions, imagine the life of that specific person. Where it comes from? What is his/her story? What lived as a kid? Is he/she happy? Why dress like that? What are his/her everyday challenges? And so on…
Besides developing plotting and character creation skills for aspiring authors, one of the amazing things I discovered from this technique is that helps developing empathy. In the high-speed society we live in, with our set of priorities and endless to-do lists, it’s harder to get in someone’s shoes and truly understand what that person is going through, simply because they are “strangers” and we don’t have the interest in knowing them.
This basic, human premise about modifying our behavior towards a person based on the “known” or “unknown” label which evolved from the tribalism of our ancestors, is what might produce the need to distance ourselves from the individuals that tend to be different from us, either physically, ideologically, religiously or based on nationality.
But, can truly help us to do this mental exercise for a few minutes to boost our empathy for humanity?
Author David Leviathan, in his novel Every Day, recreates an extraordinary case, in what I can consider the most creative premise of a novel I’ve read in a long time, in which the main protagonist, A (that’s the name), wakes up every day in a different body, borrowing a person’s life for that day. The protagonist doesn’t have a given name at birth or a specific personality based on a unique body, but rather the personality is defined by the collective experience of the different lives “he” has embodied for a day. I quoted he, because the protagonist embodies boys and girls alike, with multiple backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual preferences or beliefs. What is very remarkable is that the protagonist learns to classify the experiences in a very basic scale of like and dislike, independently of any social prejudice or pre-conception, and learns to appreciate life regardless of the social labels, and the novel even goes beyond, questioning these social constructs.
So, while I waited at Disney’s lines, I wondered if like in David Leviathan’s novel, I could borrow the life of a person for a day this experience would help me to appreciate the others and hence life?
I did a quick calculation, and living up to eighty years old, I could only experience less than thirty thousand lives, not even close to the number of visitors at a Disney’s Park for a day, and to make it more meaningful, if I would like to experience all lives of the 7 billion people of the world, I should not borrow a entire day, but rather a fraction of a second during my entire life span.
Truth is we can’t experience the lives of others not even for a fraction of second, but we can at least care to imagine the hardships people might be going through next time we meet someone, this might help us to be gentler. And even if this exercise doesn’t make us more empathetic, I want to believe it can help us in becoming more grateful about the life we are living. Bittersweet, yes, but unique at the end.
M. Ch. Landa