The Human Me

Writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.

– Alison Hawthorne Deming

Recently, a friend of mine slapped me upside the head. Not literally, of course, and not intentionally; figuratively only, and in a good way, a necessary way. She posted the above quote on her blog’s Facebook page. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I went to bed thinking about it; I got up thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.

There is so much truth in that short little statement that I have no idea how to begin to unpack it. What exactly am I up to here?

As a writer and a human being, I am under a dual obligation, both to tell the truth and to be the truth. And it’s that second one that gets me. It’s so easy to take a bird’s-eye view when I’m sitting at my keyboard, communing with a lifeless monitor; so easy to expound upon the errors of others and lay out a carefully-crafted philosophy for living as a corrective to the world’s ills. But if I put down the message along with the pen, if I follow pontification with prevarication, then my work becomes all plot and no action: my life is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Moreover, to act in the moment as the moment demands (one of my favorite Zen teachings, and one that challenges me every time I attempt to live it) is more difficult, more threatening, than we often imagine. True spontaneity is a rare gift; it is also the essence of authentic living; it is also usually just beyond my grasp. To be truly spontaneous is to respond to the exigencies of the moment simply because they are there, thoughtlessly, not in the sense of acting carelessly, but in the sense that action follows opportunity naturally, as inhalation follows exhalation. And for me, anyway, that sort of open response to unfolding circumstance is much more easily said than done.

I want to know how to marry deed to word. I want to be that finished product, The Compleat Writer, that Alison Hawthorne Deming references in her quote. But how to do such a thing? Will Wheaties-eating do the trick? Is it enough to say what needs to be said and hope to hell someone’s listening? More importantly, am I listening? Am I the same guy, out there in real life, that I am when I’m all crammed into this blog post?

Writing humanity is a difficult task: character development, authentic dialogue, the ability to tap into the core of human emotion–all these things require great skill in the best of writers. But humanity in writing is another thing altogether: I can’t afford to be just another one of my own characters, and my dialogue can’t get by just sounding real. I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.

This is a responsibility I cannot ignore. It is also one I all too often pass over unthinking. So thank you, my friend, for the wake-up call. I needed that…


17 thoughts on “The Human Me

  1. I read this not long after you posted it, but I had so many responses running through my mind that I couldn’t put any of them down. It’s quieted (a bit) so I guess I’ll give it a go. Beware the coming ramble.

    I think in the end this comes down to one thing – the innate desire to live a meaningful life. We don’t get very many years on this planet. Our childhoods are spent learning the basics and forming personality traits. Then we’re pushed into choosing a path that will determine the day to day nature of our lives. Very few deviate from where they started heading only a quarter of the way into their life. We talk of dreams and ambitions, but our society is not built to accommodate our deepest desires. We struggle for purpose in a world that puts things on a pedestal.

    It’s little wonder to me that religion is so embedded into the zeitgeist. Lives are lived in quiet desperation, yearning to be more than just another gravestone. Religion says that this is just the prerequisite to the life that matters. Suddenly the endless blur of days doesn’t bother because there’s another chance.

    Disposing of that comforting religious delusion is terrifying. One life, just one! If no one else is in charge, that leaves us and our singular lives to right the wrongs and tackle the tyrants. The later the supernatural shackles are shaken off, the more pressing the edict becomes. Our world is broken and we want it to be better both for ourselves and for those to come. We’re left grasping and gasping, trying to figure out where our strengths lies – how we can make a difference.

    It’s rather cliche for the dying generation to decry the apathy of the youthful. I’m convinced that the more we learn about the world, the more insurmountable our problems seem. The next generation is not entitled, they’re paralyzed by the perception of powerlessness.

    What I’m getting at is that you’ve dropped the veil. You’ve discovered that the wizard is just a man after all and that man is you, is all of us. I’ve thought quite a lot about what I am trying to accomplish with my writing. I tried to blog a few times before, but I always lost interest because the feeling of futility was (and still is) overwhelming. This time has been different though. I’ve found my voice, but more importantly I’ve found you. You and V and a dozen others. I’ve connected.

    I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. I wonder why I bother to say things to people that were only going to agree with my anyway. I chastise myself for being a critic without offering solutions. Then I remember. Even the posts of those that I have the most in common with have altered my outlook and molded my world. As if the relationships alone aren’t enough! Meeting others this way allows the small talk to be discarded and has made me a better person. Seriously. I am a better person because of your posts.

    I’m just one person and I don’t know how to properly measure my importance or influence now or in the future. We have to form our own yardsticks for success. Is it the number of followers and likes? Is it the quality of the discourse our words inspire? Is it getting it out and feeling better ourselves, even if no one else is affected? Is it monetary?

    I’m always interested to find out that an author or artist that I admire was unknown or unappreciated during their lives. We give out posthumous awards and commemorate long dead people in museums. I think a lot of why we do those things is because we want to extend our own lives. If others are remembered after they’re gone we can be too, right?

    Yet cemeteries are full of gravestones with names no one recognizes. I used to fear death and I suppose I still do in a primal way. But for the most part I don’t anymore and that’s thanks in a large part to an otherwise unremarkable sci-fi film – Aeon Flux. There’s a quote at the end, “Now we are free…free to live only once, and die, and make way for the new generation, and let them give us hope that things will be better.”

    I don’t know if things will get better, but I have come to accept death as freedom. We are dominoes standing alone in a seemingly endless progression awaiting our turn to fall. But here’s the thing. There are other paths of dominoes that can’t be reached unless the current progression shifts. To help humanity find another path, we have to fall. But we also have to move.

    Vance, you are helping us shift. You’re making choices that are moving you off the projected course. You may only be one domino and your movement may go largely unnoticed, but you are nudging those around you who do the same in turn. Your ‘blabber’ brings us towards the better path. You will fall, but your transformation counts.

    I’m glad for your wake-up call if it means that you’re inspired to do more, to write more. We need your voice. I just don’t want you to think that what you have been doing is of little worth. It may not seem like much, but as Margaret Atwood said, “A word after a word after a word is power.”

    Speak Toad, and watch the whole world croak with you.

    1. Holy crap! :0) That’s a post in and of itself…

      Madalyn, I too am forever strengthened by the meeting of minds I’ve found here in this “blogosphere” place. You folks–you, V, my friend Jess, who started me off on this post in the first place, and others–are a remarkable group of people, and it is a privilege to witness your minds and hearts at work. I wouldn’t have half the guts to say what I say if I didn’t know you all had my back.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your observations on the reality of death, and the shift in meaning it has undergone in my life, as well as in yours. The lack of belief in that “second chance,” as you called it, really does offer a hitherto unexperienced freedom to live my life as I’m inspired to live it, and more importantly, to use as my guide the wisdom of whatever tradition I find helpful in my journey. I will always be a product of my Christian upbringing, to one extent or another, both in good ways and bad; that’s inescapable. But I’m now free to look beyond that upbringing to the multitude of voices and choices that are out there, that before were anathema but now are just more sources of inspiration and strength.

      I’m afraid that I’ve presided over a misunderstanding, though. The point of this post was never to suggest that I feel put down by the ill opinions of others. It was simply to point out that it is harder to live the rhetoric than we often acknowledge, and that, in this as in all things, unless I am my own worst critic, I may be tempted to let the rhetoric overshadow the real.

      As the Savage Garden song pointed out, “On the telephone line I am anyone.” It is so easy to create personae on this Internet thingy, and I feel the responsibility of being in real life who I say I am online. Do I succeed? Not always. And it is that realization that makes the Alison Hawthorne Deming quote so real to me. I need the reminder, not because others question who I am, but because I do. And the moment I stop, well, that’s the ball game.

      1. There’s something that I say to friends fairly often when they’re worried about the way they parent. I find it applies to life in general though. I say that ‘if you’re worried about it, you’ve no need to worry’. I don’t say this to discount concern, but to endorse it without the anxiety that tends to accompany it.

        You’re striving to walk the walk. By trying to do so, you succeed. The cruel truth is that we’re all products of this world, for better and worse. There’s not one among us that has walked through life without falling. You’re among those that get back up and pay attention to where you’re headed rather than just putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the best anyone can do.

        While your Savage Garden reference made me squee, I question whether it fits the situation. In the song, they’re pretending. Their characters are born of them, but they are not them. The ‘internet you’ is still you. Blogging may lend itself to painting over the ugly parts, but it’s also a way to reveal the mural of your personality. You’re not a space invader. 🙂

        I think you’re right though. We need the reminders. We have to continually examine and rectify ourselves if we want to bring about change.

      2. Maybe I’m not, but I could always be Norman Mailer. You never know… :0)

        Oh, and if you’re writing your fiction like you wrote that first response, I really don’t think you have anything to worry about!

  2. “I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.”

    So strange how we sometimes fail to see it in ourselves, but others do. One of the main reasons I started following your blog was because I did see your human emotions — your humanity — the blood and sweat mixed, as you put it. I saw that your intentions were honorable — I saw integrity in your posts. I saw a human who desires to be a part of the change he wishes to see. I never doubted for one minute that you were not this way outside the blogosphere. Perhaps I’m being naive and didn’t fully grasp your post, or perhaps you are being too hard on yourself.

    1. Victoria, you humble me with your observations and encouragement, and they are appreciated.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy for me to confuse the writing with the doing. So much of the time I spent “doing” ministry in actuality amounted to little more than exalted blabber, a mistake a repeat of which I do not want. I struggle to find ways to get involved substantively in advocacy work. In the face of that challenge I tend to fall back onto the writing; it’s an easy out for me, I guess. I can fool myself into thinking I’m really making a difference when all I’m doing is heaping words upon more words.

      Also, it’s easy for me to slip over the line between truth-telling and perceived error-bashing. Sarcasm comes far too easily to me, and I wield it well. It’s a genetic thing, the Woodses’ last line of defense. Or first line, really. If what I write serves only to polarize a conversation beyond what it already is, then I’ve become (at least in my mind) part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. My most cherished goal as a writer and as a thinking human being has always been to raise the level of debate, and when I go below the belt, I act counter to that goal. And when I get irritated, I tend to go below the belt. And I go in hard.

      As you said, I desire to be part of the change I wish to see. The challenge is making sure that I really AM part of that change. It’s an ongoing challenge, and some days I succeed. Others, not so much. But this is the goal I want always before me, and the quote above is a well-formulated reminder of that.

      (Speaking of jibber-jabber…) :0)

      1. Vance, I really appreciate your comment and your willingness to be vulnerable. I think that you appropriately titled your blog post. You are, after all, human. I am also aware that I can become sarcastic in discourse, and perhaps hit below the belt, as you say. I have done much self reflection on this aspect of my personality, and I came to realize that it was a protective mechanism usually caused by a trigger from past religious abuse, and my deep concern about the state of the world. But as I mentioned in an email to you a while back, these triggers have a silver lining in that they keep the fire under me to continue in human rights advocacy and activism.

        I think it’s good that you are aware of past habits of “exalted blabber”— a habit neurologically wired from childhood through college — common in Christianity and other religions for the sake of obtaining a reward someday, e.g., approval of a god and heaven. Based on past emails, blog posts and comments, I have witnessed an authenticity in your regrets of conformity to a faith that promoted tribalism in anticipation of a reward. And I also see the good you have done in your writing.

        I have wept after reading some of your posts and emails. I have felt validation and healing from your writing. I once received an email from a woman who had noticed that I had become discouraged with advocacy work – which meant that I had to bring awareness about religious activity — and this ticked many people off, because they felt that their faith was being threatened..

        She thanked me for what I was doing and could see my genuine intent, in spite of my own shortcomings on trying to get my point across. She said that the research I provided literally saved her father from being thought of as just another ‘madman’, after a series of mini-strokes caused him to become hyper-religious and then he thought god was calling him and his wife home, so he tried to kill himself and his wife. Because of the research that was posted, she insisted on having neurological tests run, otherwise he would have been locked up in prison for attempted murder rather than being properly diagnosed and receiving life-changing therapy. I’m not sharing that to toot my own horn, but to give you some background about why she said the following:

        She wrote: “If you just help one person it makes it all worthwhile. Don’t be disheatened by some who cant see what it is that you are trying to do. There are many more out there including me who appreciate it sooo much.”

        Vance, thank you for all you do, my friend. Don’t be disheartened by some who can’t see what it is that you are trying to do. There are many more out there, including myself, who appreciate it sooo much.

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