“How’s your book going?” an acquaintance asked this week. She occasionally reads my blog, and when I see her, we always take an interest in one another’s lives and children, though we see each other infrequently.
I updated her and told her that if I’m fortunate enough to be published, I hope to be able to use my voice to help change the social dialogue, even if I can only do it for a small audience. I commented that I’m encouraged that voices are starting to crop up here and there that speak to a kinder world—people who want to join with others who are tired of the ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum, people who desperately want to meet in the middle to work on leaving a better world to our children.
A compassionate and caring person who joined the armed services and worked her way through eight years of higher education, she is a woman I admire very much. She is a Democrat who married a Republican who grew up in much more comfortable circumstances. And she is one of the most positive people I know, giving encouragement every day of her career to those who are vulnerable.
I was surprised, then, when she snorted and said, “Call me a cynic, but I think all of the people who are going to meet in the middle to work together have already done that. We’re never going to have peace.”
I sat stunned for a moment, unable to respond as I tried to wrap my mind around her perspective. She is one of the last people I would call a cynic.
She continued, “My husband thinks he’s giving back to the world if he stops on the street and gives a few dollars to a homeless person. And then he sits back and looks at our children…” Here she paused to imitate her husband, opening her arms with a flowing gesture that could have been my pastor inviting us to the communion table. “…and he says, ‘See, kids, you need to appreciate what you have when there are people who have so much less.’ He has no concept of what it’s like to grow up in circumstances like you grew up in—and like so many in this country grow up in.”
I protested. “That’s why people like us need to keep telling our stories.” I realized as I said it that it was a weak response. We have both been telling our stories to our children all their lives. Given the opportunity, we have both shared our stories with those who have much. But we don’t always share the grittiest details because that’s not something a lot of people want to hear. It’s too upsetting for them, and it’s too hard for us. And it’s challenging to share what has shaped our world view without sounding smug and condemnatory.
This is why, I think, so many talented writers turn to fiction. Real life doesn’t always lend itself to a neat plot line where the conflict ends, the loose ends are tied up, and the ending implies the author’s perspective of the world. A novelist can point out the foibles of humanity from the safe distance of personal experience projected onto a character.
I believe in the power of such narratives. But the problem is that they allow the reader, too, to distance himself from the painful experiences of the character. That can happen in memoir, too, of course. One of my readers read my first chapter and confessed to me that she just couldn’t read the rest. “I didn’t grow up like that,” she told me, “and it’s just too hard to read that and know it’s real.”
I’m more convinced than ever, though, that as a society, our only hope is to stop distancing ourselves from the pain and challenges of those in need. I think about what I’ve taught my own daughter, and I know that I spent much of my life trying to protect her from the pain of my own. The closest she has come to understanding my childhood was when she went on a church mission trip to an area near where my parents grew up to help repair the home of a poor, elderly widow.
I am glad that, barring some catastrophe, my child will never fully understand what it is to live in such circumstances. But neither do I want her to become like my acquaintance’s husband. And so I continue to tell her stories, sometimes, admittedly, to the point where she wants to cover her ears or change the subject.
This is human nature. It isn’t that we don’t care. We just want to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our own happiness.
So where is the sweet spot? During the 1960 presidential election, Hubert Humphrey campaigned on the fact that he grew up poor while John Kennedy grew up with every advantage that life could offer. He lost. And Kennedy found the sweet spot. In the end, people preferred the charismatic man with a message of hope to the man who pursed his lips and proclaimed himself the voice of the downtrodden. But campaigning in southern West Virginia profoundly changed Kennedy. And it didn’t hurt that he was born to a mother who never let her children forget that they had an obligation to the poor, the sick, the needy.
Let us each find the sweet spot where our story meets the world’s need. Even the comfortable need to hear us—perhaps especially the comfortable who would cover their ears. As Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Let us join together to tell our stories. The world is much in need of us.