You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
--To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Carl Lanser awakes to find himself aboard a World War II-era passenger ship bound for New York. Lanser has no idea how he got here or why his fellow passengers seem oddly familiar to him. All he knows for sure is that at precisely 1:15 a.m. the ship is going down, and all will be lost. At the appointed hour, a German U-boat surfaces and fires on the defenseless vessel. Just before he sinks beneath the waves, Lanser spies the U-boat's captain giving the order to machine-gun the survivors. The captain? Lanser himself.
This updated Flying Dutchman tale, titled "Judgment Night," aired on The Twilight Zone in 1959. It is one of Rod Serling's starkest cautionary tales, in which he invites the viewer--and compels the main character--to consider an alternative perspective on an event. What might we learn from the alternative viewpoint in literature, in the arts, even in psychotherapy? What thoughts and emotions arise when we climb into another's skin? In actuality, all of literature invites readers to view the world from the narrator's perspective. Sometimes we identify with the narrator; it is a voice much like our own--or at least familiar. Sometimes the narrator keeps us at bay through narrow-mindedness, deceit, superficiality. But in all cases, literature is a lens--another's lens--through which we enlighten, soothe and occasionally terrify ourselves.
Throughout my life, reading has spurred my own emotional and intellectual growth. This experience of change and developmental accomplishment through grappling with diverse works of literature has been validated by authors such as Anna Quindlen, Tony Hiss and Harold Bloom. In his book How to Read and Why, literary critic Bloom (2001) wrote:
We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.
Bloom noted further, "The ultimate answer to the question, 'Why read?' is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self."