Imagination and Empathy: Tapping Humanity’s Greatest Strengths (Writing 101, Day 7)

J.K. Rowling, in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, wisely said:

I firmly believe that one of humanity’s greatest strengths lies in imagination and empathy. We have this incredible gift to place ourselves into the shoes of others. We can experience lives that are not our own. This is a strength that is undervalued and underutilized.

Growing up, I was immersed in a culture that perceived differences as threats. My family and I attended church in our community for twenty years without ever being truly accepted and loved by the congregation. You see, we didn’t fit in with conservative Christianity. We didn’t deliberately stir up trouble… we didn’t want to cause controversy or divisions. We were eager to grow in our faith, learn more about God, and be part of people’s lives. But our minds worked differently than the people around us. We couldn’t help asking questions, which made people uncomfortable. We were different and they had a hard time understanding us. Because of those things, we never felt acceptance. As a young teen, I always felt like I was lacking something, like I wasn’t good enough, like I was made wrong. (That impression was later demolished and my sense of value was strongly established, but that’s a story for another time.) It took twenty years for us to uproot ourselves and search out a church that valued us for the people we are, differences and all. It’s been three years and we are still searching.

I think that empathy can solve problems like these. Empathy is the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Because, the fact of the matter is, we as people are not all the same. Everyone is wired differently—some are scientists, some are artists, some are Republicans, some are Democrats, some are men, some are women, some are old, some are young, some are Christians, some are Muslims, some live in the city, some live in the country, some are dreamers, some are doers, the list goes on and on. There are thousands of perspectives out there and, if you cannot see beyond your own, you limit yourself to a narrow worldview that destroys more than it fosters.

The ability to empathize is one of the most valuable lessons I learned in college. Because of this, I am an ardent believer in the value of higher education. Through years of literature classes, reading the voices of times gone by, I learned to open my mind to new perspectives. Now, let me assure you that I am in no way a master at this. I’m not perfect and, more times than not, I find myself passing unnecessary judgment on others with perspectives different from my own. But there is a difference between having blind spots and being aware of them. I know I often fail at empathy, but I’m trying.

The thing is, differences are not a threat. I think that differences are an incredible strength. If the world were full of people who were the same, nothing would ever be accomplished. If everyone were a builder, we’d have lots of buildings and nothing to use them for. If everyone were a writer, we’d have lots to read, but nothing to eat. If everyone were a politician, we’d really be screwed. The differences between people are what make the world work.

You may not agree with another person’s point of view. It may even offend you. But that’s not the point. Devaluing someone’s perspective is devaluing his or her humanity. If more people considered other points of view, damage caused by unnecessary judgment would decrease. You don’t have to agree with a person, but taking the time to understand their perspective and accepting differences can do worlds of good.

We simply cannot function without imagination and empathy. We cannot settle for being narrow-minded. We cannot go on rejecting perspectives that do not match our own. The world we live in is so broken. Every time I turn on the news or open a paper, it’s something new. Driven from their homes, refugees struggle to establish a new life. A manic father shoots his wife and children before committing suicide. People who legally can now marry are still denied their rights.

But we have the power to change things. We can imagine a world where refugees find homes, where mental illnesses are diagnosed and properly treated, where people are allowed their legal freedoms. Once we imagine all these things, we are in the perfect position to act. We know what must be done. We can then become the people who step up and bring about transformation.

Stories, by their nature, place us directly in the perspective of others. This is why I love Rowling’s quote so much. Stories force us to see with eyes that are not our own, to walk with the feet of others, to feel with heartbeats outside our breasts. Fiction captures the essence of humanity and consuming it forces us to be human.   I believe a well-told, well-timed story can change the world. 

We have everything we need to transform our world. We have the power to empathize.  We have the power to imagine.

Lilly and the Unicorn Magic

In the midst of cleaning, I’ve discovered many of my early attempts at writing.  Did you know that I wrote a fifty page story about fairies when I was in fifth grade?  Yeah.  Neither did I.

I also discovered the following story that I penned at the age of ten.  I found it to be wonderfully awful, so I present to you:

Lilly and the Unicorn Magic

One lovely day, Princess Lilly of the Fairies was out in the castle gardens with her best friend, Violet.

“Mmm,” said Lilly while sniffing a rose.

“You have such a beautiful garden, Lilly. How do you manage it?” asked Violet.

“Well, we use fairy magic,” replied Lilly.

“Oh yes! Fairy magic! How can I be so stupid?” asked Violet.

“Sorry Violet, Mother is calling me! I’ll meet you at the Daisy Slide this afternoon!”

Lilly rushed into the Rose Palace.

“There you are!” Queen Rose exclaimed. “Didn’t you hear me calling?”

“Mother, I’m fifteen now. You don’t need to worry about me as much,” complained Lilly.

“I know you’re fifteen, but that doesn’t keep a fifteen year old from coming when she’s told”

“Yes, mother,” sighed Lilly.

“Now go up to your room and get changed out of that filthy dress!” Queen Rose ordered.

As Lilly fluttered up to her room, she wondered what it would be like to live a life where there were no rules, no one to boss you around, to be free! Lily chose out a fancy dress and took off her old one. Then she dashed through some corridors, sped into the ballroom, slid down the banister, and hurried into the throne room.

“What took you so long, dear?” Queen Rose asked.

Lilly didn’t answer. She was too fascinated with what she saw. A beautiful princess was standing on a flying carpet with a gift in her hand.

“I am Dawning, the Gypsy princess. I have noticed it is your daughter’s birthday today,” she said.

“I completely forgot!” gasped Queen Rose.

“Me too!” Lilly added.

“Well, at least I remembered!” laughed Dawning. The gypsy handed the present to Lilly. “Open it later,” she said.

Dawning then flew out of the room. An old lady in tattered clothes came in. “I am the unicorn herder, Madiline. Here is my gift to Princess Lilly.” The old lady left the room. She reentered leading a baby unicorn. It was midnight blue with a silver mane and a transparent horn on its head. Its hooves were black as coal and had eyes like the stars in the sky.

“This is Starlight. His mother Moonbeam wanted me to present him as a birthday gift,” Madiline said. Bowing, she left the room. Madiline was a close friend of the queen and always gave Lilly a baby unicorn for her birthday. Lilly received her first one when she was ten. She now has unicorns named Rosebud, Vica Violet, Morning Glory, and Kingstoil. Lilly loved unicorns. Rosebud was due to have a baby!

“Thank you, Maddi! I love him!” said Lily while stroking the mystical animal.

As Madiline left, a fat dwarf came waddling in. “Hullo! I’m Stubbs! Lilly, you’ve grown a lot! Here, in addition to all your emeralds, sapphires, rubies, topazes, amethysts, gold, and silver, I give you a chest of aquamarines!” said the dwarf, who always gave Lilly a chest of gems.

“Thank you again, Stubbs,” said Queen Rose.

From Apple the pixie, Lily got seeds for golden woods. From Melinda the mermaid, Lilly got five beautiful fish. Last, but not least, her fairy godmother Stacivia gave her a magic book.

After a grand feast with her guests, Lilly met Violet at the Daisy Slide.

“Happy birthday!” Violet said and handed a not so neatly wrapped gift to Lilly. Lilly opened it. Inside was s tiny white kitten with a pink nose and blue eyes.

“Wildcat’s kitten!” exclaimed Lilly. “Oh Violet, this is my favorite present of all! What is her name?”

“You can name her,” said Violet.

“Oh wow, I can? Hmm… I dub thee… Snowball!” Lilly petted the kitten. Snowball purred. “Want to see my presents?”

“Sure,” said Violet.

The two girls went to Lilly’s stables. Violet marveled at Starlight’s beauty saying, “Wow, he’s beautiful!” Lilly was feeding Morning Glory a bleakburn berry when she noticed something strange. Rosebud was lying on her back. Her mouth was open and music was coming out of it.

“Violet, quick! It’s Rosebud!” Lilly yelled. They ran to Rosebud.

A few minutes went by. Suddenly, there was a flash of light. Lying next to Rosebud was a baby unicorn. Rosebud neighed.

“His name is Bristlethorn,” said Lilly.

“How do you know?” asked Violet.

“Rosebud told me.”

That night, Lilly told her mother all about Rosebud’s baby. “His name is Bristlethorn!” said Lily.

“Bristlethorn? You should have named him better,” said Queen Rose.

“I can’t name him, Mother. I told you, Rosebud named him and told me,” said Lilly.

“Well, your horse doesn’t have good taste then,” replied the Queen.

“Unicorn,” corrected Lilly.

“Whatever. Off to bed now. You have your ball tomorrow,” said Queen Rose.

Lilly flew up to her room. She put on her nightgown and crawled into her very large bed. She dreamed of unicorns all night.

The next morning, Lilly looked at her calendar. It was the first day of a new month. Each month had twenty-five days. It was the first day of Jewly. The day of Lilly’s ball came. Princesses from all over came. Lilly was only a child, but being a princess she had a ball every year. Fairies live until they’re about three hundred, so you are not of age until you are one hundred. Lilly was stuck inside all day getting her make up on. She had a marvelous dress to wear.

At six o’clock, the guests arrived. All the snobby dukes and princesses came. To Lilly’s surprise, her older brother was there. He had run away ten years earlier. Lilly ran up to him and gave him a big hug.

“Cornflower! What are you doing here?” Lilly asked him.

“I have come home to live,” he said, “and I have brought something with me.”

“What is it?” Lilly asked in excitement.

Cornflower motioned to a lady. The woman stepped forward. She was tall, had flowing honey brown hair, and amber eyes.

“This is Primrose, my wife and your new sister. Primrose, this is Lilly my sister,” said Cornflower.

“Hello, Lilly. I am so excited about getting to know you. You can call me Aunt Rosie,” said Primrose.

“But you’re my sister,” stated Lilly.

“Well, call me Rosie,” said Primrose.

After the ball was over, Primrose didn’t act as sweet anymore. She interrupted the Queen and called her mom. She was always muttering, “When I am queen…” Under her breath.

Months went by. Lilly’s birthday came again. She got many presents. Her new unicorn was named Firespin and he was blazing orange. Rosebud had another baby. She was silver. Her name was Silvermane. Mazy Daisy had a baby. She was sky blue and was named Skylight. Lucky Clover’s baby was black. Her name was Duskfall. Morning Glory’s baby was a she and was white as snow and was named Snowmane. Vica Violet had a golden baby and he was named MorningSun. Now Lilly had fourteen unicorns.

Primrose had a baby boy named Snapdragon. She cooed over her little boy. He was the heir to the throne. Queen Rose got very ill. Lily rushed to her room. She stood at her mother’s side.

“I love you, Lilly. Primrose is an ugly gift. I love you, Lilly,” with that, the queen fell unconscious.

Right then, Primrose rushed into the room. “Lilly! What have you done? Oh my god, she’s dead!” she screeched. She pushed Lilly from the room. So passed Rose, Queen of the fairies, daughter of Elenore. Lilly ran to her room and bawled. Primroe didn’t allow her to see her mother’s funeral. Lilly had managed to keep her unicorns secret from Primrose and Cornflower. One day she was followed by little Snapdragon to the unicorns. Snapdragon ran to toll his mommy about the unicorns. Primrose followed her angel to the stables.

“Lilly! What are you doing! Those are dangerous beasts!” Primrose yelled. Lilly jumped. “Now let’s cut off their horns and be all-powerful!” Primrose said, her eyes glinting.

She grabbed a scythe from the wall and was about to swing it at Starlight when Lilly rushed to block the blow. Lilly thought it was the end. A light blocked the blow and saved Lilly. Primrose fled in fear.

Lilly had trained her unicorns to come when she whistled. “When I whistle, come. Goodbye!” Lilly flew up to her room. The year Lilly turned sixteen she got a box that holds any amount of things inside from Dawning. It could grow or shrink to the size needed. Lilly packed her things into the box, shrunk it so it would fit in her pocket, and went to her garden. She collected all the seeds from the flowers and put them into separate pouches. Lilly grew expensive flowers and gave them to Violet. Violet’s mother was a servant in the castle so Violet was Lilly’s only friend. After Lilly collected the flower seeds, she set the unicorns free. Then she ran to the hut Violet and her family lived in. Lilly knocked on the door. Violet opened it.

“Lilly, what are you doing here?” asked Violet.

“Primrose found the unicorns. I set them free and am running away. Do you know where I can stay?” asked Lilly.

“Yeah, see that open lot next to our house? Build a house there,” answered Violet.

Lilly went to the lot and poured lots of fairy dust on it. A large hut magically grew there. Lilly went to the hut and opened the door. It was empty with a dirt floor. Lilly unpacked her things. She had a long day and was exhausted. She crawled into her bed and went to sleep.

She woke up hungry. She had breakfast and went to Violet’s house. Violet came out carrying a leaf bag full of books.

“Time to go to school,” she said. They walked to the schoolhouse. There, a group of girls were chatting. “Hi girls, this is Lilly. She will be joining our group. So introduce yourselves,” said Violet.

A girl with honey colored hair and brown eyes stepped forward. “I’m Iris. Pleased to meet you,” she said.

A girl with blonde hair and blue eyes said, “I’m Buttercup. How do you do?”

“I’m Chicory,” said a blonde curly-haired girl with blue eyes.

“I am Columbine,” said a girl with brown eyes and short brown hair.

“Hi Lilly! I’m Thrift!” said a girl with short, curly red hair and green eyes.

A girl with long gold-brown hair said, “I’m Yarrow.”

Last , a girl with curly dark brown hair and brown eyes said, “Hello, my name is Ladysmock. You can call me Lady.”

THIS IS AS FAR AS I GOT.

Here are my thoughts:

  • At beginning, it says she takes her dress off, but never says she puts the new one on. So basically Lilly goes through her entire birthday celebration naked.
  • How do you forget your birthday when there’s all these people giving you gifts?
  • Lilly never actually opened the gift from Dawning the Gypsy Princess
  • If fairies live to be 300 and she gets gifts like this every year, where will she put it all?
  • The unicorn birthing scene was pretty magical.  I mean… music comes out of their mouth, there’s a flash of light… and voila!  Hello, baby unicorn!
  • Lilly’s mom is SUPER unsupportive.  Woah.
  • The passage of time is really weird
  • Cornflower??? What was I thinking???  What kind of name is that?
  • All of a sudden all the unicorns start having lots of babies and I’m torn between being disgusted by their awfully written descriptions and the desire to own a unicorn army of my own.
  • Why was I so obsessed with flower names?
  • The queen’s death is the most dramatic, masterful death ever created in all of literature.  Also, her last words… what.
  • DUDE, Primrose… chopping off the unicorn’s horns?  That got dark fast.
  • You really ran far from home, Lilly. You really think Primrose won’t be able to find you in a hut on the castle grounds?  Nice work.
  • How many people in this story have honey-brown hair?  And seriously… how many friends are there at school?

All I know from finding this story is that I was a very special child.

What do you think, readers?  What’s the weirdest part of the story?  What’s your favorite part?  If you could re-write it, what would you change and why?

Liebster

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow blogger, Holly, awarded me the Liebster Award.  It’s an award bloggers give to each other to highlight new and incoming blogs.  The award comes with a series of questions posed by the giver.  Here are the questions I’ve received and my answers to them!  (Also, Holly is an absolutely fantastic blogger and you should all check out her work.)

1. Which book/movie character do you identify with the most?

Ouch.  This one is tough.  I honestly don’t know how much I actually relate to these characters, but I definitely see pieces of myself in them.  Or, I like to think I see pieces of myself in them.  (I realize the question asks for only one character, but I’m going to give three.)

One that comes directly to mind is Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables.  I was in high school the first time I read these novels and immediately felt connected with Anne’s big imagination.  She takes simple things like paths and ponds and gives them grand names, seeing all the beauty and all the potential they possess.  In her mind, all the fantastical things she dreams about–the far off places, adventures, passions–they’re all real.  Although we are very different in many ways I like to think Anne and I are, to use her phrase, kindred spirits.

Another character I identify with is Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  No, I’ve never been locked up in a castle and I have never fallen in love with a hideous beast.  But, like Belle, there have definitely been times in my life where I’ve felt out-of-place, misunderstood, and unwanted.  Like Belle, there were times growing up where I would sit and dream of far away places and adventures.  Recently, I had the chance to go to those places and live out all the adventures I had spent my whole life dreaming up.  It was wonderful.  Finally, Belle and I are both massive bookworms.  Without shame, I admit to daydreaming about the Beauty and the Beast library.  It’s every English major’s dream.

A third character I see myself in is Jo March from Little Women.  Why?  Although I definitely lack Jo’s fiery temper, she too is a reader and a writer.  She moves to a big city all on her own to pursue a literary career.  I moved to a big city to pursue my literary studies.  Grown up Jo almost has the “I’m a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man” attitude, which I love and definitely, to an extent, relate to.

2.  Describe the best day of your life thus far.

Summer 2011.  I was eighteen.  My morning began pulling drip lines in the strawberry patch.  Half an hour into the miserable job, a thunderstorm struck and work was called off for the day.  So I spent the morning baking cookies.  In the afternoon, my coworkers and I went to the cities (St. Paul/Minneapolis) to see the very last Harry Potter movie ever.  It became the third movie to ever make me cry.  Afterwards, we went to a frozen yogurt place in Dinkytown.  My friend and coworker, David, had sugar for the first time in months (his family is anti-sugar, pro home-grown foods) and went absolutely off-the-walls hyper.  To say he was entertaining is a vast understatement.  I don’t know if I have ever laughed as hard as I did during the drive home.

3.  Do you consider yourself to be an extrovert or an introvert?

I’m definitely an introvert.  I love people and can be very outgoing when the need arises, but being out in public too much is exhausting.  I need solitude to recharge.

4.  What were you like when you were a kid?

Oh gosh, I was annoying.  I was one of those dumb kids who had something to say about absolutely everything.  In our old home videos, I’m always in the corner narrating everything that was going on.

On the positive side, though, I always had a big imagination.  Even as a small kid I loved stories.  I would dream of far away castles and dragons that needed fighting.  I’d go out into the woods and play out these stories, often dragging my brothers or best friend, Erin, to play supporting roles.  Naturally, once I learned my letters, I became an avid reader.  You know those days where you just can’t put a book down and you read the whole thing in a day?  That was me at the tender age of eight.  My imagination and love of stories only grew as I got older, morphing me into the nerdy English major I am today.

5.  What’s one book you think everyone should read?

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.  Unabridged.

6.  What are you afraid of?

Centipedes.  They weird me out.

7.  What makes you laugh?

I love intelligent parodies that don’t take themselves seriously.  For examples, I find the movies  The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail absolutely hilarious.  My not-so-inner lit nerd adores The Reduced Shakespeare Company.  YouTube videos like “Beauty and the Beat” and “Jane Austen is my Homegirl” almost never fail to make me laugh.

8.  What’s your (realistic or unrealistic) dream job?

One of the in-character wizards at Harry Potter world.

Travel writer.  The kind that people pay to see the world and write about it.

Disney animator.

9.  Where would you like to travel?

Europe always and forever will have my heart.

If I had been asked this question six months ago, I would have told you England or France.  Now that I have been to these places, my answer would have to be Italy, Sweden, and Norway.  I am always up for another trip to Austria.  It’s not European, but I would also like to visit Israel before I die.

10.  Why did you decide to start a blog?

Six years ago, I was a young nerdy teenage girl up to my elbows in the Harry Potter fandom.  I met a girl named Cathy on a fan forum.  We became friends and she told me about blogging.  Having a corner of the internet to call my own was incredibly appealing.  So, at the age of fifteen, I began my first blog.

I’ve been writing ever since.

11.  Post the funniest meme you’ve ever seen.  (Okay, that was more of a command than a question.  Sorry.  But still post the meme, please?)

I’m weirdly fascinated with the concept of gangster Lord of the Rings.  I have no idea why.