Friday, October 4, 2013

How Only Children Can Gain Emotional Intelligence Through Literature

I'm not friends with anyone who's called me stupid.  Or needy.  Or a bitch.  That's because I don't have a brother or a sister. 

Kids from big families seem to have skins so thick.  As an adolescent, I gravitated to these large broods, hanging around their houses like an anthropologist.  The way they spoke to each other!  Especially the boys, who called each other all manner of homophobic slurs and whacked each other around.  The girls played passive aggressive games until someone borrowed the wrong pair of jeans and then screaming and hair pulling ensured.  I was horrified and thought surely their relationships were severed for good.  Then I would see them at dinner laughing about some ancient family joke.  I was mystified at how their bonds held even in the face of what I saw as violent conflict.

When an only child has a fight with a friend--and in my case, even approaching fifty, a long silence or remark that I might require a little too much care and feeding can sting--it feels like the end of the world.  We are, if we're lucky, the third pin in triangulation with our parents.  In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo writes from the perspective of twelve year-old Griffin, driving to the beach with his father and permanently disappointed mother.  He sat in the back seat while each June they underwent an (initially) unarticulated discussion about the rental in front of them his father's meager academic salary had purchased, versus the description they had read in the advertisement.  Charming, rustic. Which meant, "crappy."  He made himself as small as possible in an effort to stay out of the inevitable fray.  I am grateful that my own children had one another through the dissolution of their parents' marriage.  At least later in life they can compare notes and be assured of their own sanity, if not that of their father and mother during this time.

I didn't have Netflix, so once I got through the Gilligan's Island re-runs, there wasn't much to distract me after school.  Books became my refuge and my way of understanding the world.  At thirteen and babysitting through the summer, I blasted through the romance novels of the mothers who employed me, and got bored with them quickly, although the Judith Krantz books held my interest through the lascivious parts.  

Then I pulled A Turn of the Screw off a bookshelfI remember trying to figure out what was going on with the governess, the housekeeper, the little sister, and why things turned so sinister.  It was fascinating, and my heart pounded as the plot rose.  This was no formula book, and who knew who the bad guy was?  At that point, I stopped reading for entertainment and started reading for empathy.  Literary writing was a window into how others lived, how they felt, what they dreamed about and plotted against one another.  Why do people do what they do?  I'll never tire of considering the possibilities.

This week, a study published in the journal Science leads to the conclusion that sitting with a book is not a dreamy waste of time.  Though short-term, the study demonstrates.. "that reading literary fiction enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships—and functional societies." Reading books that focus on character development rather than plot helps us read other people.  It seems a pleasant way to overcome an experience deficit.

In my vocation, I help lawyers promote themselves.  Surpassed perhaps only by doctors as the least self-aware profession, they can be pretty brutal in their assessments of my efforts, although I have a pretty strong skill set in securing their trust. My high brow reading would seem to have provided me a good living.  And a thicker skin.


1 comment:

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