Saturday, March 07, 2009

Ruth and I were talking about my experiences at the demonstration. I told her I could not abide the counter-demonstrators, and could not bring myself to "dialogue" with any of them. (One sweet young gay man, who was standing near me, talked about how his mother talks to her Bible Study group about him being gay, and how it's not a sin. I can't imagine having a mother who goes to that kind of Bible Study and being okay with it. This young man, raised Catholic, also has a brother who converted to Mormonism and regards him as a sinner, although he says he still loves him. I can't imagine still being in relationship with someone who felt that way about me. I admired him for his calm, loving, open-mindedness. This young man did, in fact, engage some of the Christian protesters in meaningful dialogue. Better him than me.

Ruth said that even though she is lesbian, she could easily put herself into the shoes of someone homophobic. She could imagine how the world would look through that person's eyes; someone who felt that the stability of their family and their world was threatened by gay sex and love. I said I couldn't imagine myself inside the skin of such a person.

We talked about the limits of empathy. Empathy is the artist's instrument. Especially writers and actors, I think. Singers too. Maybe musicians can get away without it, or painters, but a writer or an actor needs to be able to step inside the skin of another human being. (Then why are many writers and actors narcissistic personalities? I don't know.)

In addition to being a writer, Ruth is also a depth psychologist, and cousels people who come from different backgrounds than she does. So empathy is doubly important to her. She says she is empathic to a fault, but the one trait she finds it hard to relate to is the deliberate desire to hurt someone else: violence, or cruelty.

I immediately said I could relate to this trait all too well. I can understand the man who is so jealous of his wife or girlfriend that he beats her or kills her. I don't condone such behavior, but I recognize that I have the rage-beast within me also, and I can say "There but for the grace of God go I."

I have in fact written poems of empathy for Greg Withrow who was a member of the American Nazi Party (since reprogrammed and now an anti-racist,) and Saddam Hussein. After 9/11 when everyone was pumped up on hating the evil terrorists, I couldn't find it in my heart to hate them. I could see that under their system of thinking, raised in the circumstances they were raised in and brainwashed the way they were, that what they did was "right" in their own eyes, even brave and courageous. I could imagine myself raised in a refugee camp to hate, envy and fear the West, and being inculcated from a young age, that I might do the same.

The thing is, I told Ruth, I cannot empathize with these anti-gay Christians. If I were a better writer, a better person, I could imagine myself into the mind of a woman who gets on a bus or a plane in Salt Lake City to come down to San Francisco, den of iniquity, and try to stop the cancer of same-sex love and marriage from spreading.

I should be able to do that. I have corresponded with people on Death Row, I have written from the point of view of men, of people of different races and ages and circumstances than myself. Was it Gerturde Stein who said, "Nothing human is alien to me?" Someone said it, and I agree with that remark. I have counseled drug addicts who did terrible things while under the sway of their habit, I turn on The Sopranos and see myself reflected in Tony Soprano--but. I cannot imagine myself inside the mind of someone who thinks that two gay people marrying will somehow violate her own marriage.

"I should be able to write a short story from this person's point of view," I told Ruth. "But I'm sure that I can't do it without sounding as if I'm stereotyping--without, in fact, stereotyping that person. I can empathize with violent fuck-ups. I have fucked up plenty myself. But I can't under any circumstances imagine myself as so spiritually smug as Christians who are sure they are going to Heaven and others are going to Hell."

"Can't or won't?" asks Ruth. "I think you have some resistance there."

She's right, I do have resistance. So I set myself this goal. I need to write something convincing, empathic, and non-stereotyping, from the point of view of the Other I despise most--conservative Christians. I will do research if necessary. I will enlarge the place of my tent.


Anonymous said...

Doubt doesn't drive us crazy ; only certainty does. What kind of people are those who claim to know better than ourselves what we should do with our lives ?
Impermanence ; in a few decades we'll all be reduced to a handfull of dust.
Let they leave us alone. Let they relieve their anguish on their own expense. Let they enjoy life instead of bothering other people.

David Shearer said...


There is a verse in PROVERBS, which was quoted by the character Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe, in the remake of the movie "3:10 to Yuma" which rang with the clarity of absolute truth to me when I first heard it. It may bring some degree of perspective to the issue at hand here. It goes something like this; "Every way of man is right in his own eyes. God ponders the heart."

I believe that this is true for all of us to some degree. The variety of beliefs, the diversity of culturally set values, the rainbow of human personalities, is so great in our world that it is most unlikely that we as a community will ever reach consensus as to what constitutes "right" or "wrong" conduct among ourselves. What seems to truly matter is "why" we hold a particular belief about someone else. Is that belief founded in love, compassion, tolerance? Or is it rooted in a darker motive like hate, greed, or fear?

It's not for me, or anyone else, to judge the depth or capacity for empathy you have toward any one person. You certainly have displayed great ability in this field through your writing. And you publicly recognize your failure to connect with people who oppose your views on gay marriage. Given enough time, both sides will inch closer to reconciliation.

From your writing it's readily apparent for all to see that you have a great capacity for love, tolerance, and understanding. And you are willing to share that gift with everyone! Do not ever underestimate the positive effect this has had on people. Yourself, and like minded authors have at times brought me to a crossroads with your writing and forced me to re examine my own values. And I have not been easily swayed from some of my narrower, and less kind views of the world and the people who inhabit it! It is because of writers like yourself that the world is improving each day.

You speak of the "rage-beast" within. I too have struggled with the beast that resides deep inside my soul. He is not welcome, but has been dwelling inside me as far back as I can remember; into early childhood even. At first that beast seemed to direct my life. In later years I would look back on the trail of emotional carnage the beast and I had left in our wake, and I was able to see that this was not a good thing. Over time I have tamed some of the anger and rage, but I have yet to drive those feelings from my soul. The best that I have done so far is isolate that emotion from my larger awareness, and acknowledge it, but deny it a public voice in my life.

So it comes to this: We all struggle to some degree in this life to find where and how we fit in. But struggle always leads to growth. And growth is good, is it not?

.....and I have really, really rambled on to long here. Forgive me, please.

David S. Shearer