When seventeen people—human beings with names and lives and futures—were killed in Florida on Wednesday, I was writing a draft of a blog post about pain. I stopped, knowing it would take days of perspective to sort out my thoughts in this horrible new context.
Pain brings everything else to a halt, most of all when it’s sudden and violent. I think of Brené Brown’s description in Braving the Wilderness of drivers in Houston pulling over when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. I think of lyrics from Les Misérables after the young revolutionaries are slaughtered: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” There isn’t anything we can say or do, so we stop, helpless.
I believe that’s how humans were created to function. Grief strikes us down because we are meant to feel that torture and use it to reassess our lives and choose a better course.
A friend of mine shared a Reader’s Digest article on Facebook about a fifth-grade teacher who collects notes from her students every Friday so that she can assess who might be feeling ostracized from their classroom community. She started doing it in 1999—in response to Columbine.
Another friend recently moved into a neighborhood near Miami, into the exact county and school district where the shooting happened. She told me that after such excruciating heartbreak, it’s the abundant outpouring of love within every aspect of the community (schools, churches, yoga classes) that has her amazed. And today the news announced that the students at Stoneman Douglas High School are planning to march on Washington for change that they hope makes their shooting become the last.
Pain can unite or divide, better us or make us worse. We get to choose. And believing in the power of connection is the choice that changes the trajectory of the world.
Brené says that human connection “is not something that can be broken; however, our belief in the connection is constantly tested and repeatedly severed.” It’s in a chapter called “Hold Hands. With Strangers.”
On Christmas Eve I got to do that literally. I drove with three friends through a snowstorm to get to Midnight Mass at a beautiful cathedral downtown. The place was packed. We found space on a pew for three of us but stuffed four in anyway, the wooden side shoved painfully into my hip through the whole service, distracting my focus from the haunting candlelight and the harmonic voices of white-robed children filing through the dimness. Beside me, people crowded into the aisles, content to be present even without a seat. When the bishop asked us to stand and hold hands as we sang together, I was holding hands with a friend on one side and a stranger in the aisle on the other. I felt overcome by the connection of that moment as I realized how rare that is to experience. I felt such love for every person. The world expanded.
As Brené says, “Not only do moments of collective emotion remind us of what is possible between people, but they also remind us of what is true about the human spirit.”
The world can feel so very dark, and we need those moments of collective light.
Wednesday morning I read Maggie Stiefvater’s October post describing her shift from writing about darkness to writing about light in her most recent novel All the Crooked Saints. I had been mulling over how to explain what it is that drives me to write stories, why I felt compelled to spend a decade telling my characters’ story just right, and I agree with Maggie: My chosen response to the hard and horrible things I witness, including the devastating choices of others, is to offer hope in the best form I know—writing.
At first you think you’re writing a book because you want to be published. Then you realize that this is hard and you are insane for attempting it. Finally you surrender because you sense something in it that’s bigger than you—something the story is trying to say about being human, something you don’t even know at first because it finds you as the story unfolds.
See, I have this incredible crush on fiction. I believe that we are saved by stories, that stories teach us things we could learn no other way. They shape us with or without our awareness. And most of all they infuse in our hearts a powerful empathy for otherness by dropping us into the souls of these characters—strangers whose lives and thoughts we get to inhabit and hands we get to hold for the space of one story arc.
It doesn’t matter that they aren’t real. It matters that these characters resonate with us, that we wince and cry and laugh with them and feel tremendous compassion and somehow, by the end, celebrate whatever hope they’ve discovered for themselves.
The more we experience that in stories—the roller coaster of emotions and all the hopeless-seeming moments leading up to the unforeseen redemption at the end—the more we can say, like Maggie Stiefvater, “I find I am even more firmly a believer in the light.”
Last weekend I read a novel that dropped me into the head of a suicidal teenager, and I sobbed as I felt what she felt. True story: that level of empathy is hard. As humans, we struggle enough with our own pain without wanting to heap others’ pain on top.
The paradox is that closing off hurts us more and opening up helps us heal.
When we hone in on our own pain, it worsens. The suicidal character was locked into her pain, clutching it and telling no one, unable to see beyond it without help. By the end, she is finally able to let go because of the connections of friendship and the power of sharing.
According to Brené, “These moments remind us that we are not alone in our darkness and that our broken heart is connected to every heart that has known pain since the beginning of time.”
We need that reminder and that connection, and stories create both. For example, here’s a scene from my novel where the main character is with a friend when she experiences physical pain and the paradox of wanting to shut down but needing to do the opposite to escape:
The world collapsed to nothing but the jostling darkness in her head, no sense of the rest of her body or anything around her. Pain gouged her, dizziness crushing, her mind revolting. No chance to catch her balance. Tumbling in the dark. Cold and afraid it wouldn’t stop. Gouged, dizzy, revolting, hopeless, tumbling, cold, afraid. Her body curled up tighter, trying to force it to stop. Nausea soaked every piece of her. She squeezed her eyes against it, shrinking inward. Was he feeling this too?
She forced her eyes open. Letting in that sliver of light pierced her head with sharper pain. Instinct demanded she lock in again, shut everything out, concentrate on fighting this off, but she had to know if he was okay. She widened her perception, conscious of his physical presence and his fright. He was bent over her, and she thought how he’d watched his mom die and his brother almost OD and now the friend he needed most was writhing from some unknown attack. She couldn’t drop back into the dizziness.
She unfolded herself, leaning against the gray driftwood for support as she sat up and took in her surroundings. It was like adjusting the aperture on her camera to increase the depth of field. The wider she extended her awareness—hearing the squawk of seagulls, the lap of the tide, noticing the grainy feel of the sand—the more the vertigo subsided. She breathed in the briny smell, the taste of the foggy air, the sense of his relief. Pain cleared.
Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the pain that exists in the world—abuse and rape and human trafficking and suicides and shame culture and greed and hate crimes and mass shootings—that I sob even without reading individual stories. I want to shake my fist and demand that all of it STOP, and I wish for a thunderous voice that would bring every level of violence to its knees.
But instead I hear a whisper to open my eyes and write what I see. Write about what’s real. Write about the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. Write about the paradoxical riddles of happiness. Write about the magic that infuses our lives and nudges us toward something better. Write a story that will make people believe in hope.
I wrote Say Quick based on these lines from Act 4 of Peter Pan:
Her light is growing faint, and if it goes out, that means she is dead! Her voice is so low I can scarcely tell what she is saying. She says—she says she thinks she can get well again if children believed in fairies! Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe!
Say quick that you believe in light, and hope, and humanity. Say quick that you believe in empathy, and stories, and transformation. Say quick that you believe in the worth of every person and their talents and dreams. Say quick that you believe in the magic of all those things.
If, as Carl Jung wrote, “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being,” then writing is how I choose to add meaning to the world by telling even one reader: You are not alone.