I’ve been re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my upcoming Writing With Atticus class. A well-known line from Atticus seems especially relevant in these unusual times: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The ability to see things from other another person’s perspective is Atticus’s superpower. It keeps him from despising his opponents, or even his enemies. Just as importantly, the ability to walk around inside another person’s skin gives him (and the rest of us) a way to strike a balance between the individual liberty that we value and the common good, which we also value.

I thought about that line from Atticus last week when I read an Atlantic article called “A Trick to Stop Touching Your Face” (subtitle: “Instead of thinking about your health, think about the well-being of your community”). The gist of the article is this: when it comes to getting people to change their health-related behaviors it turns out an appeal to self-interest (“Wash your hands or you might get sick and die”) isn’t as effective as an appeal to altruism (“Wash your hands or the people around you might get sick and die.”)

This makes perfect sense to me. At the moment I’m not especially worried about my own health–at least not worried enough to avoid touching the door-handle at the post office. But I’m sufficiently worried about my elderly and immuno-compromised neighbors to avoid touching door-handles and to wash my hands for twenty whole seconds and to stay home when I’d rather go out. And so are you, I suspect. 

Writers, you have it in your power to help people climb inside another person’s skin and walk around in it. It’s one of the main reasons we read at all–to see what it’s like to be somebody else, to be reminded that our own interests are not the only interests in the world or the most important. This skill isn’t just a nice-to-have. Now is one of those times when it becomes more obvious than usual that our cultural survival depends on our ability to care about the people around us, and not only about our own freedoms and self-interest. 

So as you are cooped up in the coming days, I hope you’ll spend many hours reading and writing–walking around in other people’s skin and helping others to do the same. It’s an excellent way to love your neighbor, even as you keep your distance.