I tend to begin blindly. That is, I write and let the start of the story flow from the first passing whim. From there, if I like what I’ve begun, I continue with a story more thoughtfully constructed–with characters and plot moving toward planned moments and, eventually, a conclusion.
If there is a theme in the writing that springs from this process, it is discovered rather than expressed. In some cases, this discovery is unwelcome. I find that I’m promoting a viewpoint in which I don’t believe, and I have to rethink the message. But that is all the work of editing. Rarely, if ever, have I begun writing with a theme (or a moral, or a message) in mind and let the story come out of that exploration. The reason, in all its patheticness, is probably that I’ve never had an issue, a position, a commitment to an idea unpopular, controversial or important enough to be the sole fuel of my writing. Until recently.
In the last few months, I’ve been thinking deeply about compassion. The power of it. The perceived weakness of it.
When I was growing up, I was frequently called “sensitive” and it had a meaning that carried the heavy deficiencies of fragility and naivety. My mother told me recently that her greatest fear for me – once my personality began to develop – was that I would be debilitated by my “sensitivity,” that I would be unable to function for my feeling for others, and that I would choose partners who were broken and bad for me, because I could see the good in them through the damage. What’s a parent to do when a child that should be happy for herself, hurts for others?
When I saw ugliness and injustice being imposed on those around me, I was not supposed to be appalled by it. My happiness was a condition of my calm, clean life. Others had less of everything – food, love, stability, comfort – so I had better be happy! (Like any loving beings, my parents wanted to give me all the good, and fix or shield me from all the bad. They wanted me to be blissful, and who could dare fault them for that?)
But I felt as much of the unfairness of my privilege as is possible, and I understood the inconsistency and horror of being told to feel blessed by the luck of my draw. Why must I always be joyful by comparison? Why shouldn’t I be devastated by the inequality of my lot, just because I had the more enviable share? Why should I be branded with the back-handed “sensitive,” when that emotional sensibility is a symptom of desirable traits like sincerity, empathy, and kindness?
There was a large part of me that went unacknowledged. A toughness, or rather, a resilience. People who cry (or should I say, women, particularly young women, who cry) don’t get the benefit of being believed strong. My family feared I would be crippled by my emotions, but emotions are not a weakness. Not necessarily. Emotions can provide drive and purpose, especially when born out of compassion. Compassion. There it is. The most powerful force in the world.
There is so much I want to say about compassion. How it is the most underrated and essential personality trait. How it differs starkly from “synonyms” like mercy and charity. How it could be the only thing besides religious bribery and familial guilt that makes someone into a good person…
And so, for the first time, I have a theme worth expressing in my writing.