How Reading Literature Cultivates Empathy: The Connection Between Fiction and Empathy

I remember the moment so vividly; even now, I get an achy feeling in my chest. I was ten years old, reading a book about World War II from the perspective of a German girl in Dresden. I was a voracious reader, particularly when it came to books about the Holocaust. My mother’s family is Jewish and I yearned for an understanding of that time period. This book, the girl’s narration of the bombing of Dresden, opened me up to a realm of compassion that I’d never experienced — because it was compassion for those I had considered the enemy. Before reading this book, I’d have held that those Germans deserved it, that bombing.


 narration of the bombing of Dresden,
opened me up to a realm of compassion
that I’d never experienced 


But after, I was shattered. “Us and Them,” the blurry lines around innocence and perpetrator. That I could feel such compassion for the girl in the story and her family made me feel uncomfortable, unstable. It had been so much easier to be in a black and white, good versus evil world.

Elena Aguilar

Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California