And yet, we grow out of this at some point. Our empathy limits itself to the world we most directly inhabit, the world we can touch. The news from Europe and the Western world becomes more important than the news from the “Global South.” Translations from French and Spanish are revered more than those from Urdu and Chinese: According to Publishers Weekly’s Translation Database, this extends beyond classics like Le Petit Prince, Pinocchio, and Don Quixote; over the last three years, most translated fiction in English came from the French (173), the Spanish (152), and the German (76). For comparison’s sake, there was one Urdu translation in the same time frame: the story collection Dog of Tithwal by Saadat Hasan Manto—a twentieth-century writer deemed prolific in South Asia but largely unknown elsewhere—that was published by Archipelago Books, a publisher dedicated to translated work.
There’s a folktale told everywhere from the grassy steppes of Central Asia to the deserts of Africa and the foothills of the Himalayas that I think demonstrates this gap in our empathies well. It is the story of Mushkil Gusha, “the remover of all difficulties.” The version of the story I’m most familiar with is from Caravan of Dreams by Idries Shah (read here by Stephen Fry).
It’s a great story, and I do hope you’ll look it up. (Nonspoiler: There is no real plot.)
To condense it, albeit crudely: It is a story about a poor woodcutter, whose daughter accidentally locks him out of their house on a cold night. The man hasn’t eaten, having been cutting wood in the mountains, which he intends to sell the next day. A voice calls to him as he tosses and turns, trying to sleep outside, and it tells him to close his eyes and walk up the stairs.
“But I do not see any step,” says the man to the voice, who once again tells the man to close his eyes and walk up the stairs. Standing up, eyes closed, the man raises his right foot and feels a step under it. And then another, and another, until it becomes apparent to the man that he is ascending a staircase.
Once at the top of the stairs, the voice instructs the man to open his eyes. He does and sees nothing but desert. At the voice’s behest, the man picks up pebbles, fills his pockets with them, and returns home.
“Although you may not know it yet, you have been saved by Mushkil Gusha,” the voice tells the man. “Make sure that every Thursday night . . . [you] tell the story of Mushkil Gusha. If you do this, and if this is done by those to whom you tell the story, the people who are in real need will always find their way.”
The next day, let into the house at last, the man drops the pebbles in a corner, and, as promised, narrates the story of Mushkil Gusha. Some days later, when his neighbors, having lost their night’s fire, come knocking for a light to reignite theirs, the man is confused. “I am sorry,” he says. “I have no fire.” The neighbors usher him to his window, aglow with warmth. The pebbles, as you might’ve guessed, are jewels streaming with light. Eventually, writes Shah in his telling in Caravan of Dreams: “As is the way of men, the wood-cutter forgot to repeat the tale of Mushkil Gusha.”
A lot more happens (or doesn’t happen) in the story, but Shah writes, “These are some of the incidents in the story of Mushkil Gusha. It is a very long tale and it [has] never ended. . . . But it is because of Mushkil Gusha that his story, in whatever form, is remembered by somebody, somewhere in the world, day and night, wherever there are people.”
There are several strands to the story that appear incomplete or lost; parts of it, one could argue, border on nonsensical even. Shah in his typically prophetic way warns the reader about this in the story’s preface, telling them not to expect the grand hurrah that’s often associated with stories in the white-Western world. For some cultures, he explains, an event is people coming together in harmony. Yet in “contemporary cultures,” as Shah calls them, an event is “something which takes place and which impresses people by means of subjective impacts.”
Shah calls this “lack of completeness” in events, the “untidiness” of themes, and “the absence of certain factors” something that those of us raised on a diet of nimbly packaged heroes’ journeys have come to “expect” in a story.
Both journalism and (predominantly) white-Western storytelling suffer this same ailment: An event is only deemed such if it ticks a certain set of boxes. In news, these events must be “newsworthy” or deemed to be so; timely, close in proximity, significant in impact; bizarre (but not overly so); conflict-ridden; primed for “human interest.” In storytelling, we’ve been taught that a narrative must have an arc—there must be conflict, tension, the crescendo of the aha moment or the victory.
But the event in Shah’s world is the daily. The story of Mushkil Gusha exists in a few hundred (perhaps thousand) forms, owing to Gusha’s origins in oral tradition. When I asked my Nani, my maternal grandmother, whether she’d heard this story, she said she knew it, but by another name (although she couldn’t tell me which one). In some versions, the woodcutter and his daughter have names—those variations alone make for a different story in each telling. In others, there is no test of faith, climbing stairs, or picking up rocks; Mushkil Gusha helps the woodcutter directly with gifts of food. This doesn’t make any one version better; some might just be more relatable to us.
Which brings me back to empathy. We don’t lose it. We simply stop exercising it as well as we did when we were children. We tell ourselves little lies when we read the news (“yes, but that’s happening there—it would never happen here”), and we eventually start believing our lies. Covid was “far away” and “irrelevant” when it was, for the moment, contained in China until it spilled across global borders.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that teaching kids to understand other people’s perspectives makes it easier for them to forgive other people, accept apologies from other people, and receive forgiveness. We live in a world where self-care and self-love are so feverishly marketed, so hyper-focused on the individual, that we perhaps forget: We can perhaps take better care of ourselves when we learn to care for others. In other words, to refresh our sense of empathy, we have to expose ourselves to other perspectives. In life, in literature, in the news. More importantly, doing so isn’t just good for those whose perspectives we open ourselves up to; it’s good for us too.
This is (to cite research one last time) the best tonic for an increasingly fractured, divided world. In a study about political persuasion, we can only relate to people with whom we disagree from a place of empathy. We know our value systems, but to appeal to others’ values, we have to know them and their stories too.
So when movies about periods and giant red pandas are labeled “limiting” and “inappropriate” (as was the case with the film Turning Red) and when news budgets for certain parts of the world are slashed, I can’t help but try to step back and see the big picture. Cherry-picking stories to highlight and pushing the rest to the fringes harms us in the long run. Despite the flood of stories that have permeated our screens now, the Russian invasion was a while in the making. And as rising cooking oil prices and crude oil prices on account of the war in Ukraine have taught us, we live in an interconnected world. It is in our combined best interests to care about the worlds outside our doors and our borders.
As someone who is saturated in news, I see how the current news model—with its hot takes and knee-jerk coverage—is broken. But the same is true for what we label “good” literature nowadays: Narrative arcs are prized over winded allegorical folktales with several loose ends. In journalism, this is perhaps remedied with a transition to slow journalism, where a focus on big-picture news prevents the sudden flood of stories when an event is “timely.” In literature, perhaps it’s as simple as deviating from what is conventionally accepted as “good” writing. Read more, read different, read with patience.
I’m saturated in news. I can list countless examples off the top of my head. But these examples all point to one thing: the importance of exposing ourselves to different stories. It’s unfair to expect an audience who can’t point to Tanzania on a map or tell you what its capital city is to care about an ongoing eviction drive that essentially attempts to displace Masaai people in Ngorongoro. Things have to be considerably bad before news dives in knee-jerk coverage and hot takes, so people care for a millisecond and then move on. Yet I see all this as preventable—and the research agrees with me! If we open our eyes to the “smaller” stories, the “lesser” stories, we’ll care when disaster strikes.
Perhaps to start, google what’s happening in Sri Lanka or Kashmir or Afghanistan. Or maybe, this Thursday, tell someone the story of Mushkil Gusha.
Akanksha Singh is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai, where she covers travel, culture, and social justice. She has previously written for the BBC, CNN, HuffPost, and more. Follow her on Twitter @akankshamsingh and read her work at akanksha-singh.com.