Living A Thousand Lives

Paper, ink, glue, tape, and cardboard. Supplies for dabbling in crafts? Maybe. Materials to create the totality of the human experience? Definitely.


Words and stories have played a significant role in my life and who I’ve become. I’ve written about how books have been my rescuer. Books have also changed who I am.


Without a doubt, reading has made me a more compassionate person. More empathetic, and less judgmental. How exactly is this possible?


There is apparently a phenomenon that occurs while we read called “experience-taking” by psychologists and researchers. This means that readers who “lose themselves” in a story, experiencing the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of a character as their own, can have temporary and measureable changes in attitude and behavior.


My hypothesis is that if you do this often enough, it can have a lasting impact on how you see and experience the world.


Although every life has a measure of struggle and hardship, most have been spared from many of the tragedies we read about; kidnapping, rape, murder, escaping a war-torn country, terrorism, tragic accidents, terminal illness, adultery, divorce, or any number of story plots that fill the pages of the books we read. Thankfully, we do not have to experience these events first hand. In the hands of a skilled writer, and in a safe environment, we can imagine what it would be like.


For me, many years and hundreds of books later, it means that when I turn on the news, read a newspaper, or visit a news website, the stories are more poignant. More real. I can’t possibly know what any given person is going through, but I can imagine, thanks to the experiences I’ve had by stepping into the lives of literary characters.


According to the Oxford dictionary, empathy means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”


No matter how well I think I know the loved ones in my life, I don’t live their experiences with them, inside their heads, hearing their thoughts as they go about their lives. I wish I could. With the character in a book though, I get a unique ability to become them, if even for a short time. I find it addictive to be able to slip off my skin and don an alternate identity.


And maybe I’m not alone in finding this appealing. There are plenty of people who delight in the Halloween tradition of doing just that.


Even if I don’t engage in the “experience-taking” phenomena by allowing my identity to be temporarily put aside, however, I still get an unprecedented window into the interior life of another person, even if that person is fictional.


So I sobbed for Call’s loss in Lonesome Dove, and with Louisa when Will made his decision in Me Before You. My heart broke with Liesel as she finally gave Rudy the kiss he’d been begging for in The Book Thief. And my heart was as full as Leo’s, the lonely hoarder in The History of Love, when the pieces of his life fell into place. I marveled at the strength of one human spirit, and celebrated Louis Zamperini’s triumphs in Unbroken.


Have I suffered these tragedies and victories myself? No. And yet, yes.


George R.R. Martin said it best:


“A Reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”


So what have I learned by living the lives of others?


Reading has taught me that the people who are the most prickly on the outside are often the most wounded on the inside. Good to know. Makes it a lot easier to deal with the difficult people I come across.


I’ve learned that circumstances can be out of your control, but your attitude toward them is not. I consider this an immensely important life lesson, and I’d like to say I learned it on my own, but I had help.


I’ve learned that the heart is fragile and yet stronger than we imagine when faced with the unthinkable. And it’s strengthened by kindness and connection with others.


I’ve learned that anything we say or do can lead to a cascading series of events; we are capable of unknowingly changing the direction of a life. Because of this, we are more powerful than we realize.


I’ve learned that it’s impossible to know what a person is capable of. That includes myself.


I’ve learned that there is often a reason to hope, even when redemption seems unlikely. You never know. Life throws in plot twists all the time.


I’ve learned that everybody has a story and it’s probably much more complex and nuanced than they could ever convey. And that fact alone, gives me pause and makes me hesitate to pass judgment. I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged by someone who has little information about my experiences, background, struggles or even how much sleep I had the night before.


Judge not, and you will not be judged…
Luke 6:37


Instead, God tells us to have compassion for one another.


Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,
Colossians 3:12


Thanks to many talented writers and exceptional characters, I am better able to do this. They have helped me become a better person, one page at a time.


And I find it a tad ironic that largely because of books, I am able to follow the instruction of the ultimate book!



Now it’s your turn to share! How has reading influenced your life?

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