Seeing Across the Divide

Using photographs to inspire kids' writing -- and empathy

“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” writes Mary Oliver. She’s talking in particular about helping children attend to the natural wonders around them and wonder inside them, which I stand behind fully (more on that another day), but the premise hold true among people too.

We don’t love what we can’t really see.

And we don’t really understand anything unless we love it.

Learning to see each other:

I spent two months in college backpacking in the wilderness as part of the field studies program Sierra Institute, which was a deeply profound experience that is in my bones to this day. One of the most profound exercises we did was to sit across from another person and to stare into each other’s eyes for three minutes without speaking, laughing, or looking away. I was paired with a gentle stoner boy who had always been a little indistinct to me. We sat cross-legged on the ground and stared at each other. Whole weather systems of selves moved over his face as I watched: tenderness and pain I’d never seen, and strengths I hadn’t guessed. He grew old and young and seemed to move through centuries. Afterwards, he announced that he loved me and I knew exactly what he meant because I loved him too. We never really became friends, and it definitely didn’t get romantic — we never even had much to talk about — but I hold him in fierce esteem and openheartedness to this day.

I think about that experience when I think about the rampant divisiveness in our country. Clearly, we need ways to learn to see each other.

We need to practice understanding what it is like to be each other. One way to do this starts by looking — and writing, of course.

Like many writing ideas, you can take this one light or go deep.

The Light One:

Find some interesting photographs of people, preferably a slightly mysterious or weird photo. National geographic or other good photo magazines are good sources. I’ve been working with Jess Pinkham’s photos recently with my students, because of the strange-but-not-scary quality many of them have, and the many photographs that feel respectful of children’s inner lives.

Write a story inspired by the photograph. What is happening in the picture? Who are the people? How did they get to that moment? What happens afterwards?

You might write briefly on a series of photos before focusing on one photo, or just pick one and run with it.

Remember — you’re writing fiction, so there are no wrong answers, even if the story ends up being about something totally different than the photograph really was.

The Deep One:

This project is probably best for older kids who are ready to wrestle with serious things. Find some photos about current events you’ve been talking about with your kids. Maybe difficult images your kids have seen that you’ve been helping them wrap their minds around, maybe pictures of people who are in some way unlike your family or people in your immediate community.

Have them look at a photo for a while, and begin to imagine what in going on for the people in it. What are they feeling? What are they thinking? What do they want? What are they sad or angry about? What do you imagine their lives are like? Why are they doing what they are doing? In what ways are they brave or beautiful? Are there ways that they seem afraid or out of touch with some part of themselves? What would it feel like to live in that fear or estrangement?

Have them write down what comes to mind, or even to write a story about their lives.

Obviously, unless your child is some kind of psychic FBI agent, they aren’t going to get everything factually right. But what matters here is that they imagine what it might be like to be the other person. The goal here is imaginative empathy. While again, there are no wrong answers, I would nudge kids past any surface-level stereotypes that emerge, towards a sense of the person’s individual humanity.

The point here isn’t to absolve anyone’s behavior or condone any particular belief, but to begin to understand each other across seemingly unfathomable chasms of differing reality. By helping them imagine what it might be like to be someone else, we help develop our kids’ empathy muscles — their capacity to see humanity, love humanity, and stand up for humanity.