I wanted to write something this week that was super fun and silly, since my last post was a bit more focused on the bigger picture, feeling feelings, all that, but I honestly don’t feel like I can! I don’t know how to leap into a bright and shiny headspace when I actually feel quite weighed down and burdened by everything that is going on in the world right now. As an artist (well, writer- please God don’t make me draw something), I wrote last week about how I often feel a ridiculous self-imposed responsibility to “change the world” with my art, but it feels like an even more daunting task than it did last week, if that’s possible.
What I’m struck by lately is how, in times like this, our instinct can somehow be to separate even further- to put labels and boxes around ourselves and others: liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, extremist, unbeliever, fascist, woman, etc. I admit I am pulled strongly on social media towards the people saying “enough is enough- it’s not a time for being wishy washy- stand up and show yourselves!”, and I want to, like, punch the air and be like- YES! LIBERAL CANADIAN WOMEN UNITE! But then I awkwardly lower my outstretched hand and think about members of my family who don’t hold those titles, or those beliefs, and I think- well, they’re not like other “conservatives” or “Americans” or “extremists". They’re the exception to the rule- the nice one, the one whose labels I can “overlook” because I know them, I know what they’ve been through in their lives, I know that their heart is good. Essentially, I know their story. And recently that’s been making me question whether or not my viewpoint would change towards EVERYONE who is feeling so “other” to me right now if I knew their story too. Not their “side’s” story- not the story of Republicans or of extremists or of angry men- but the story of each individual person who feels “other” to me.
I happen to believe really deeply in the power of stories- my writing workshops, and specifically the Finding Your Voice workshops, are all about empowering and encouraging writers and non-writers (aka soon-to-be-writers-but-they-dont-know-it-yet) to tell their own story. In later workshops, we focus on fiction and characters and dialogue and all that good yummy storytelling stuff, but I really believe strongly that the most important place to start is learning how to tell our OWN story- who we are, the small memories and images and words that make up our lives- the things that set us apart uniquely from every other person on the planet. Lately, I’ve wondered what would happen if people from all sides of this great scary argument that is the world right now actually sat down and told each other their stories- not with the purpose to convert anyone to their side, not with the purpose to teach a lesson or shame the other, but with the sole goal of expressing what makes them unique, human, a being with a heart.
I was telling one of my writing students recently that most antagonists in stories don’t know they are the antagonist. They think what they are doing is good, and they believe that generally they are a good person. The best antagonists are the ones we sort of sympathize with, the well-rounded ones we can see a bit of ourselves in. Similarly, I believe that 99% of humans actually set out to be good people during the day, though our actions can be interpreted as evil by others, and can even sometimes cause evil with or without our intention. Please understand, I fully understand that there are great intentional evil actions done as well. Taking the life of ANYONE, for ANY reason, is a truly evil act. But even the person who committed such an act- if they had the chance to tell their story before the anger and perhaps mental illness took over- if they had the chance to sit down and tell someone or write down what they had experienced in their life- the bad, but also the good, the lovely, the animals they loved, the leaf they once pressed in their grandfather’s old book, the moment they knew they were first in love- would that person have perhaps felt understood, and able to communicate? And what if- what IF- they had the chance to hear the story of one of the people they believed they hated- what if they sat down and heard or read the story of someone they believed was so “other” and so beyond understanding, but found themselves drawn to and relating to and intrigued by that person's memories of the birthday parties they had as a child, the first time they pet a horse’s nose, that one time a snow cave became their spaceship, and, yes, the moment they knew they were first in love? Would this person who had felt such hate before been able to say, maybe not about everyone they felt hatred towards, but maybe to this one person- you are the exception to the rule, the nice one, the one whose labels I can overlook because I know you, I know that your heart is good. And maybe if they heard one more story of someone else, and one more, perhaps these people would stop being the exception to the rule for them, and perhaps the label that so scared them would not be scary anymore, and perhaps even they would find love replaced hate.
I’m not trying to say that if we all hold hands and sing kumbaya and dance around the fire together that the world would change overnight. Actually, I take that back. If that really happened, I bet the world WOULD change overnight. But there’s the problem of getting everyone in the same forest, and making sure everyone knows the words to kumbaya, and getting a fire that big lit, yada yada. Logistics, amiright? But what I AM trying to say is that I’m realizing how important it is to listen to one another. Listen. Listen to each other's stories. Ask what someone's story is. Labels are safe places for us to hide and belong, and easy things to group others into and declare them “evil”, but I think they might be stopping us right now from listening. And if you’re lucky, someone from the other “side” might even ask you to tell your story, and OH! I hope they do. In the meantime, you should start telling it. Tell it to everyone you know. Write it down. Don't worry about the punctuation, spelling, how "publishable" it is, what people will think. Just TELL IT. Not just the bad parts, but also the good parts. The time you made lemonade in Greece with your sisters while you waited for your college crush to show up, how as a child you collected stick-on earrings unpeeled from their backs in a tiny glass box, and how when you close your eyes you can still smell the piney scent of sweet bouquets of moss collected in Canmore every weekend. Maybe someone who had written you off because of the label they gave you (or you gave yourself) might read it, or hear it. Maybe they’ll be surprised that they relate, or they empathize, or they are just purely entertained by you. Maybe you’ll become the exception to the rule for them. And then maybe, if they hear enough stories, they won’t have a “rule” about a certain group of people at all. And maybe…. I’m nervous to even say it…. but here it goes… maybe telling stories could save our lives?