What to read when hope flickers
“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living.” -- Jonathan Safran Foer
Years after reading this book, this quote has stuck with me. It's not what the author intended, but I feel like it describes my personality, the way I take on other people's emotions like they're my own. When people I care about are sad, or afraid, or hurt, or upset, I feel it. Another person's grief can stick with me for days, clinging to my stomach and making my vision go out of focus as I imagine what they're going through. A friend's fear can raise the hairs on my arms and neck, make the panic well up in my throat. A loved one's hurt feels like a punch in the chest, sudden and breathless.
It's probably not healthy. But it's who I am.
A few weeks ago, my post Here's to 2016 came up in my feed as having been published one year ago. Scanning over it, I feel like I'm looking at someone else's words. It's amazing how much things can change in one year, and how we all thought 2015 was bad at the time...and now look what's happened.
I've seen more pain, more depression, more tragedy, more frustration, more anger on my Twitter and Facebook feeds this year than ever before. Faced with fear and uncertainty, more and more people are taking to social media to purge their anxiety rather than confront it alone. In many ways, I think that's better. Some people will judge you for it, but sometimes you need to process things and get people's words of clarity to talk you down off the hypothetical ledge, and if you can't afford a shrink then I suppose strangers on the internet will have to do.
Despite what the older generation might tell you, I believe we actually communicate with each other more now than we ever have before. The internet gives us the opportunity to speak to people any time of the day or night, and not just people we know. It's rich with chances to hear voices completely different from our own, to get to know people who have lived entirely different lives than we have.
Yet with all this opportunity, I can't help but feel that we are more isolated and polarized than ever. With access to a 24-hour news cycle and the ability to search for truth faster than ever before, our faith in reporting and unbiased facts is dwindling. With the opinions of people who have different political ideals than we have at the touch of a button, it's more common than ever for people to form groups and communities that share their beliefs and lock everyone else out.
Back in December 2015, I had so much hope for this year. It hasn't been all bad: my husband and I bought a house, we finally fulfilled my adulthood dream of getting a puppy, I finished my second novel, and we went to New Zealand. There have been a lot of bright spots, but still...my hope has flickered. The hope that I read in last year's post as I summed up the year seems far away now.
Far away, but not gone.
As a writer and reader, it's no surprise that the only solution I can think of for people facing 2017 with dread lies between the pages of a book.
In the latter half of this year, I've been more intentional. I've followed more people on Twitter who are from different backgrounds than my own: in race, ethnicity, religion and/or sexuality specifically. I have also prioritized books by marginalized authors on my to-read list. Rather than buying the latest novel by an author I love, I've tried to spend money on supporting new voices in fiction -- especially if those voices are different from my own.
Reading fiction has been proven to enhance empathy and tolerance, which should come as no surprise. When you read a novel, if it's a good novel, you put yourself in the characters' shoes. You see the world through their eyes. Nothing else quite gives you that same experience. Watching a movie, listening to a song, going to a play -- those things are all good, but they lack the intimacy that books have. When you read, it's just you and those characters. No interruptions, no arguments, no "alternative perspectives".
Just you, and the people in the book.
Many members of the incoming presidential administration seem hell-bent on silencing the voices of people in these communities: immigrants, Muslims, refugees, LGBTQ, to name a few. I wonder if any of them would change their minds if they were to read their stories.
No matter where you stand on "the issues", no matter what kind of books you normally read, I want to encourage you to read more diversely in your fiction. You will only benefit and grow as a person by getting a glimpse into the world of a Black teenager fighting against institutional racism, or a young gay man dealing with the death of his ex-boyfriend, or a mixed-race Hawaiian girl who has the ability to time travel, or an Indian coder who's fighting against her family's expectations about marrying the perfect husband.
These are the kind of stories I think we all need to be reading right now. The stories of youth and risk and love and rejection and failure and triumph -- all common experiences, but told in uncommon ways. In a time where we are more divided than ever before, I think our best chance of ever coming together again is to learn from other people's stories. Learn from what we share; learn from what we don't. Read with open eyes, ready to learn, ready to change.
Reading these stories gives me hope. It's what keeps the candle blazing on, even as the wind continues to blow through.