November 26, 2010

Thankfulness, Part 5

Following up on yesterday’s post: Garrison Keillor on Writer’s Almanac yesterday talked about the first Thanksgiving. He goes into more detail about their lives and relationships. As always, this program is a bright spot in my writer’s world.

How do you cap off a week of thankfulness? Well, first and foremost, I think you don’t. I think I need to remind myself to be thankful each and every day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who don’t have enough to eat or who are in the middle of war or are facing awful conditions. If you read yesterday’s account of the pilgrims, almost every paragraph is about people dying, trying to find food, starving. I heard the other day on NPR an interview with Laura Hillenbrand about her book Unbroken about Louis Zamperini. He was in the Pacific in World War II, was stranded on a life raft for days, and was a prisoner of war in horrible conditions. Then you hear about all the families in the U.S. who are out of work and hardly making it, who are lining up at soup kitchens and living in their cars.

Is it awful that humans feel better about themselves by comparing themselves to others? “On the shoulders of others,” we always say. Maybe it’s just one of those things that just is. In academic/psychological terms, this is called othering and identification (which is what I did my master’s thesis on). We feel better about ourselves by distancing ourselves from some people and drawing others closer in our minds. Maybe it’s neither good nor bad but it’s what we do with it that matters.

So empathy matters. It matters a lot. The more we can stay connected to other people, the better off we all are. What was the statistic I recently read? Oh, in Newsweek: Japan, which has the smallest gap between rich and poor of any country, also has the lowest obesity rates. It is my impression that Japanese society is much more focused on the good of the many over individual rights. Maybe we need a shift in our thinking ~ we need to be thinking about others more than ourselves.

And it comes back around to writing. I think of writing and reading as a singular act of empathy. It is as close as you can get to the insides of another person. If you’re a white woman in the American West (like me), how else can you know what it’s like to be a black man in South Africa and an urban young woman in Japan or a Canadian expat of Indian descent in France? Maybe it’s nothing more than self-justification, but I believe absolutely in the power of writing to make a difference in the world and to draw people closer together.

So I vow to continue to try to be thankful every day and to try to further empathy in the world through the one tool I feel reasonably competent with, the written word.

Questions of the Day: On the grander scale, what do you see writing and reading accomplishing?

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