DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
If there ever was to be a representation of the personification of empathy, it would be Cheryl Strayed.
Strayed is a New York Times bestselling author, known for her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and the collection Tiny Beautiful Things, and a host of the advice podcasts “Sugar Calling” and “Dear Sugars.”
She will be delivering the morning lecture as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 2 in the Amphitheater.
Wild was adapted to the screen in 2014, and starred Reese Witherspoon as Strayed and Laura Dern as her mother, Bobbi.
“As a writer, obviously, so much of my work has been about empathy,” Strayed said. “I think that there’s no way for you to create a character on the page or write about yourself in a vulnerable way without having this deep understanding of, essentially, the human struggle to both have compassion for our flaws and our mistakes and admiration for our triumphs and our strengths. Never was that put to the test before quite so directly as when I began my work on ‘Dear Sugar.’ ”
“Dear Sugar” was Strayed’s originally anonymous advice column on The Rumpus where writers would ask for advice. Strayed will be pulling from other editions of “Dear Sugar” columns to include in her lecture about empathy.
“My impulse was to respond with a lot of empathy, compassion and sincerity, and genuinely try to use the column to actually not only help the person who wrote to me, but maybe offer some comfort to others who are reading it,” Strayed said.
“It’s not just the direct epistolary exchange between the letter writer and the advice giver — it’s a conversation that includes everyone who’s reading it.”
Strayed believes that she always had a natural impulse toward empathy, even when she was a child. One time, her older sister Karen fell and skinned her knee, and Strayed started crying harder than her sister was. She cried so much that their mother thought Strayed was the one that had fallen.
“I felt her pain so deeply that it actually traumatized me to imagine my poor sister being hurt, so that there was always that natural inclination I had toward having that kind of empathy,” Strayed said.
Strayed’s career has been defined by her candidness about her own experiences, which naturally lends herself to be empathetic of others and theirs.
“I know for certain that when we tell our stories, we make others feel less alone,” she said. “So when I speak up, and I say ‘I don’t know how to live without my mother, I’m so devastated by that loss,’ I’m not really just talking about me; I’m talking in a voice as a writer, at least, and as Sugar to a whole lot of other people who are nodding their heads and feeling the same way.”
The state of the world has also led Strayed to believe that there is an absence of empathy across the globe. In America specifically, she points to Donald Trump’s presidency as a specific point of an unempathetic time in history.
“Whether you love him or hate him, I don’t think that you can dispute that he behaved in a way that didn’t really honor empathy,” Strayed said. “His concerns weren’t about compassion, inclusion and affirmation. He really rallied around rage and resentment, the kinds of things that are the opposite of empathy.”
Strayed is not naive to the fact that there are issues on both sides of the political spectrum, and there are no easy solutions to the divides that exist today.
“I do know for certain, no matter where you stand politically, that when you actually take the time to listen to somebody’s perspective, to know somebody’s story, to understand what their personal struggles or fears or anxieties might be, at least it might be an opening to a conversation,” Strayed said. “I don’t know what that conversation is going to lead to, I don’t know if we’re going be able to solve everything, but having it is at least the beginning.”
Strayed is currently working on finishing up her next memoir and a screenplay about a famous woman in history.