Do Movies Help Us Unlock Our Capacity for Empathy?

The late well known film critic Roger Ebert famously said,  'movies were an "empathy machine", a way to step into someone else's shoes or experience a perspective that the real world could never allow.' I can certainly personally attest to the fact that movies did indeed help bring me awareness of ideas and people that  my younger self wouldn't have had the opportunity to personally experience at that age and time.  Yet as these movies helped me to gain that valuable insight and empathy did they also prepare me in a way for what was to come. Did they unlock and expand my empathy so that when life invariably led me to similar experiences that I would have a greater capacity for handling it.

In exploring older movies uploaded on You Tube I came upon two nuggets I hadn't seen in ages. One was "Nothing in Common" from 1986 staring a young Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason in his final role. The other movie was "Hanging Up," coming out much later in 2000 staring Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow.

Both films deal with an inevitability that many of us will eventually face, caring for an ill parent. Both films give an unflinching look at the inherent difficulties of that role reversal and how does an adult child find a way to still navigate their own life while being there for their parent.  Neither movie provides easy answers to this but does give us a  glimpse that part of this coping lies in how the caregiver is supported.

Naturally both movies show that there will be those who don't get it and may even give the person grief for the things that they are not doing, yet there will be those who by showing compassion and a little understanding can help lighten the load somewhat of a beleaguered caregiver.

For the Tom Hanks character, David support comes in the form of his ex girlfriend  and his understanding boss at his ad agency played by Hector Elizondo.

Interestingly, there are two scenes that stand out in my mind in both films that show the power of just letting someone be vulnerable and feel. In Nothing in Common it is the scene where the Tom Hanks character just puts his head on his ex girlfriend's shoulder and she just comforts him while they wait in the hospital for news on his father. In hanging up, it is a scene where the Eve character, played by Meg Ryan, just breaks down in front of a virtual stranger about what is going on with her father and the older woman just holds her and lets her cry it out.  The older woman is actually there to discuss a fender bender that Eve was involved in and as the woman holds Eve she calls her son and tells him to forget about the accident because in her words "Eve has too many problems." Simple acts of kindness that can mean so much to someone going through tremendous emotional trauma. 

Thus, movies may not only help prepare us for harsh realities of life that we may face but they may also teach us not to prejudge a person until we have walked a mile in their shoes. If you are currently a caregiver and in need of support please don't hesitate to reach out and ask for it. You deserve to be cared for too.

(Image by: Nick Fewings via Unsplash)

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