Practicing Empathy by Engaging in the Humanities

By Naseem Jamnia

When I decided to move to Reno to join my husband, who had just started his master’s program at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), I wondered at the kind of literary community I would find here. Our hometown of Chicago is full of readings, events, and festivals that celebrate not just literature but the arts of all kinds, and I found myself wondering whether I would have access to the same kind of enthusiasm for the arts in (relatively) small-town Reno. In my first year here, relatively isolated and unsure of how to find these events, I thought I had confirmed my suspicions. However, as time has gone on—I’ve been here for nearly two years—I’ve realized that despite my misgivings, there is a deep love of the humanities embedded here, with a growing community that celebrates it. 

It was my participation in this month’s Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl that finally brought this home to me. When I was asked to join, I wasn’t sure whether to expect a turnout of mostly UNR English department members—and was wonderfully surprised to find people coming out from not just across the city, but the state and beyond. With 99 authors and 45 panels or events, the Lit Crawl sprawled over spaces in downtown Reno like the Downtown Reno Library, Pignic Pub & Patio, the Nevada Museum of Art, and, of course, Sundance Books and Music. I came out of the day full of energy and enthusiasm, finally feeling like I had found my people here—people who understand the deep importance of the humanities to us as citizens of the world.

Across all ages, the humanities encourage us to practice empathy. They make us more compassionate, more open-minded and accepting of different experiences. As a writer, it’s my job to bring to the page what’s in my head—whether that’s inventing a fantasy universe or bringing to life being a queer, trans person of color. In this and other ways, creators in the humanities make available to us worlds outside—and inside—our own.

October, as National Arts and Humanities Month, offers us a time to reflect on how the humanities enrich our lives. From the trials of Alexander Hamilton in song to the importance of protesting police brutality on the page and screen, humanities and the arts show us the troubles and the triumphs of history, the limits and richness of human imagination. They remind us how we can learn and grow in every turn. It is through our engagement that we understand how people have come before us and how they will live long after us, opening our eyes to worldviews that we would otherwise never experience. In a time in which our daily news bring to light atrocities both across the world and in our own backyards, I hope we will use this month to work on becoming more empathetic and more understanding through our engagement with the humanities and the arts.

Naseem Jamnia is a former scientist and freelance writer and editor working on their MFA in fiction from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Cheyanne TreadwayThomas