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.