I’ve heard it said that those who read fiction develop a greater sense of empathy. Maybe. It could also be an example of my favorite Latin logic fallacy, which I trot out at the drop of a hat because I love how it sounds: post hoc ergo propter hoc. (After this, therefore because of this.) It could be people with greater senses of empathy are attracted to novels, and those with less of that quality read non-fiction. I’ll leave that for greater minds to debate. There is no shortage of them in the world.
What I do know is that I have far more empathy for those whose situations vary from my own than I did as a younger man. There is no single date or occurrence that prompted it. I can say when the tide began to turn: The Wire. I came late to the show (as usual), picking up Season One with Season Four already in progress. I’d already read Homicide, so I was primed. Around this time I read The Corner and I started to to look past the superficial dissimilarities between my rural upbringing and what happens in the inner city of Baltimore.
My reading remained focused on crime, but crime with more diversity. While reviewing books for the New Mystery Reader web site I became sort of the unofficial Irish crime fiction reviewer, routinely assigned books by Declan Burke, Declan Hughes, Adrian McKinty, and Ken Bruen. NMR also exposed me to Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty thrillers, set in Bangkok. Charlie Stella’s looks at mob life from the underside. Arnaldur Indriðason’s Iceland novels and Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Silva series. J. D. Rhoades’s unique brand of redneck noir. Friends steered me toward Daniel Woodrell
I learned that once one gets past the superficial differences in language, culture, justice systems, availability of weapons, and which side of the road to drive on, people are pretty much the same. With outliers on either side, the great majority of people pretty much want to be left alone to live their lives as happily as they can, and for their children to have it better than they do. The only thing that made me special was having the foresight to be born in a country that allowed me to do those things.
It’s now easier for me to imagine—and I am grateful beyond words that I only have to imagine—what it must be like to live in a place where those things are denied to people. Even worse, a place where your life—and the lives of your family—is in danger because of things you have no control over. Gender. Sexual orientation. Race or ethnicity. I include religion, too, as the major organized religions all preach peace. (I’ll not hold it against any religion if some of its followers defame the faith by their very existence. These people are apostates, and they exist in every religion.) How would I feel if I lost everything I owned and faced the option of death or flight that took me to a place where I didn’t speak the language and my customs seemed as strange to the current inhabitants as theirs do to me.
It has become fashionable to declare at great length and volume against immigrants and refugees, and every nation certainly has the right to set its own polices for both. When doing so, let’s not forget that the only thing that allows us to pass judgment on who is worthy to cross our borders is an accident of birth. I served in the military, pay my taxes, vote, and comply with summonses for jury duty without complaint. I view them as debts owed that I can never fully repay, but do the best I can.
Let’s remember how we all got to where we are during this holiday season. Some work harder than others, but it’s a sin of hubris for anyone in this country to believe for an instant that he or she has earned what we have. We’ve done our part, but we also started ahead of the game by being born into a situation that allowed—and often encouraged—us to become everything our gifts and efforts warranted. Any “earning” we did came after the fact. With that in mind, let’s take a minute this holiday season to reflect on our great and largely undeserved good fortune and learn a little fucking humility.