In the Land of “If’s” and “Buts”:The Art of Empathy
When I was five years old, I told Santa Claus I wanted a model airplane for Christmas. I meant the gas-powered kind that would actually fly. To my disappointment, what Santa, aka my parents, left for me on Christmas morning was a metal toy plane that I could push along on its rubber tires, and lift into the air, and fly along with my hand while making the engine noises. Not what I had in mind at all. I whined and pouted and had a little tantrum, and my father said to me, as he so often did in those days, but perhaps never quite as appropriately, “If ‘if’s’ and ‘buts’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
His point was, of course, that sometimes we don’t get what we want. Sometimes life disappoints us. Sometimes our loved ones do, too—our parents, our spouses, our friends, our siblings. The world has a way of diminishing joy, of threatening or harming, of leaving us fearful and angry. Life often falls short of what we want it to be.
Perhaps this has never been so true as now. It’s November when I write this, nearly two weeks past the election. Many of us are trying to make our way through a world that has drastically changed. Here at Ohio State University, where I teach, more than a thousand students—Muslim, Black, Latino, White, LGBT, and Asian—gathered at our multicultural center last night to express their fears and to share their stories of the threats they’ve endured since the election. Here on our campus, students have faced acts of racial, religious, cultural, and homophobic terrorism. They’ve been taunted with calls of “Build the wall,” and “Go back to Mexico.” They’ve been physically assaulted, threatened, and intimidated, even in their classrooms. A Black female student told the story of expressing a point in a class, and a White student responding to her by saying “It’s n—ers like you that are the problem in this country.” And the professor said nothing. At another university here in Columbus, a female student, out for an early-morning walk, was beaten by two young men wearing Trump shirts and hats. Needless to say, these are scary times. We woke up on November 9 with the stark realization that our world was going to be very different from the one in which we thought we were living.
I’ve seen the effects on the students in our MFA program. In fact, in my creative nonfiction workshop this week, a student-led writing activity brought up questions of the efficacy of our words. A number of students talked about not being able to write in the days after the election and questioning the purpose of their writing. One student said she wanted to be a writer so she could have an effect on the world. Don’t we all write because we want to make readers feel and/or think something? I told my students I’d hate to see what happened with the election silence them. I told them that we need all their voices, especially now.
It’s times like these that challenge us—times of uncertainty, times of struggle, times of fear. I’ve always believed that the act of writing is essentially an act of empathy. We do our best to understand the sources of others’ behaviors, to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s skin, to see the world from their perspective. When someone or something comes along that’s so distant from our own experience, our own viewpoint, we find ourselves sorely challenged indeed. We need to use that challenge to ask ourselves whether the people we are match up with the writers we are. Do we only empathize on the page, or do we empathize in real life?
I grew up in the rural Midwest. An examination of the election returns from the precincts in my native county shows me what I suspected. Not a single precinct went for Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Worse than that, Donald Trump won by huge margins in every single precinct. This grieves me, not only because I don’t agree with the result of the election, but also because it places me on the divide between my values and the values of the people in the place I still consider home. Here’s a truth we may not want to accept right now. There are good people everywhere, even people who voted for Donald Trump. Do I think they’re complicit in Trump’s racism, classism, misogyny? Yes, I do. After all, they empowered him. But I also know the good hearts of people, who for a variety of reasons, truly believed, when they cast their votes, they were doing the right thing.
I grew up among them. My father, a life-long Democrat, was a farmer. My mother, a Republican, was a grade-school teacher. I grew up in the lower middle class. I grew up in the flyover zone. When I was a boy, I stood in line with my parents on Saturdays to receive government commodities: powered milk, sorghum, flour. I knew early on that we had little privilege in the world. Yes, we were White, and I was male, and that was something, but we had no status when it came to our soico-economic class, or the place where we lived, or the jobs that we held, or the schools we attended. I was one of the lucky ones. I had parents who believed in education, and I had a mother who loved books, and who taught me to love them, too. The one privilege I had came from the power of language.
Which brings me to the question of how we’re to use that power. My students wonder if words can make a difference. Here’s what we learn as we age. The tough times will come. We won’t always get what we want. But we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, and no matter how dark things get, there will always be some measure of joy in the world. We may have to look for it in the small blessings of our everyday lives, but trust me, it’s there. And whether from the darkness or the light, we’ll keep making art. We have no choice. We’ve been called. We’ll keep telling our stories, writing our poems, our novels, our essays. Words matter. We know this better than anyone. In the land of “if’s” and “buts,” we can never have enough voices. Let the chorus rise up. Let it start now.