I cannot ask who is left more disfigured:
the ones who are beaten or the ones who beat;
the ones who are hung or the ones who hang.
— from “Postcard from Okemah” by Terrance Hayes
Earlier this week, a person I know on Facebook posted the comment “Help, Help, I’m being repressed” about an article that suggested Arab-Americans be labelled disadvantaged minorities. I don’t know enough, yet, about the socio-economic and cultural situation of the Arab-American community in the U.S. to have a strong opinion about this topic, but the venom, derision, and mockery that was included in this person’s commentary – wow, that I have an opinion about.
Lately, I’ve been in a lot of conversations and witnessed a lot of commentary where people judge and demean other people – blanket statements about writers using excuses for not writing; claims about how Republicans believe or Democrats believe; opinions about teachers being less intelligent than most of the populace (that one ran as an ad in our local newspaper) – so much venom, so much loathing . . . all disguised as wisdom.
One of the things I learned early on in my writing career is that a good writer should have sympathy and even an affinity for all of her characters – the ones she loves and the one she loathes.
I’m reading a good example of this practice in a young adult novel called Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari. Our protagonist is a young woman named Lucy, and she comes into direct conflict with a woman named Dell – a person who betrays her trust and also wants to steal the man Lucy loves. It would be easy to write this character flat, like she isn’t likable in anyway. But Treggiari gives Dell depth; as a reader, I understand that somewhere in Dell’s life there is a reason for her attitude and her actions. I may not like the reason, but the reason is what helps me sympathize with her, even as I want to shake her really hard.
Sympathy, empathy even – that’s what makes good writing.
And I’d go even a bit further, it’s what makes good people. What I feel when I read all these judgments – or when I have them myself because I do (my face went livid when I read the commentary about teachers – I know who took out the ad, and my thoughts, sadly, were not very loving in those moments) – is that I need to remember that every person has reasons for the decisions they make, the actions they take, and the opinions they hold. I may not share those opinions or agree with those decisions, but there are reasons – and if I would but take a minute to know them, perhaps I would find a way to sympathy.
So for the gentlemen who posted the “Help, Help I’m being repressed,” I’m going to posit that maybe he really does feel marginalized. Maybe he feels under threat. Maybe he feels a bit lonely and hoped to stir up some affirmation through his post – I don’t know the reason he posted this thing, but there is a reason. As long as I keep looking for that reason rather than dismissing him with his words, maybe, I can find my spot for sympathy there.*
I sure hope I can.
What opinions or actions are hard for you to sympathize with? Why do you think we so often choose to distance ourselves from each other instead of pulling closer to understand?
*Please note that while I try to find sympathy for the person, I do not condone the actions or words that demean others. Just to be sure that’s clear.