Something I find myself dealing with a lot when examining how people are affected by storytelling, and what powers that storytelling has to affect us, the concept of “relating” to something comes up a lot. Note that by “relating” I specifically mean that identification process– NOT just what I would call the process of “connection,” the larger and more general ability to find some way to emotionally engage with the story. Relating to a story is a way to connect with it, one of many. But a lot of readers’ greatest source of engagement is being able to personally identify in some way. They relate back something in the story to something that is already understood or meaningful to them, which gives it an emotional resonance and a sense of investment.
Now, it isn’t a bad thing to experience the feeling of relating to something, or enjoy it when you do. But I feel it’s the most basic, even most unsophisticated, level of engagement with the story– “am I able to bring it back to myself?” The real problem is when somebody can’t get into a story because of the absence of that personal identification. It turns what should be an broadening experience into a narcissistic one. Because to me that demonstrates a failure of empathy. True empathy allows for a person to step outside themselves and conceive of feelings and experiences that may have nothing to do with them. If you can’t care about, understand, or get interested in something that doesn’t remind you of you, you are not only seriously limiting yourself, you’re indulging in a gross form of self-centeredness. That’s where we get the dumb ideas like “boys don’t like stories about girls” or “white people won’t watch films about people of color,” which are dangerous and damaging, not to mention reinforcing of white supremacy and patriarchy.
As a teacher, I want to encourage students to be able to find a more sophisticated form of connection– to engage with literature in a way that builds empathy. Asking people how they relate to the tale is perhaps a good basic starter way to get them to extend their emotions, but unless they move past that at some point, they’re missing out on the greatest power that storytelling has– the ability to give understanding about situations outside your own.