There was a time, not so long ago, that I found it easy to write about fictional dystopian horrors, experiences unlike anything I ever experienced. My imagination allowed me to picture those ghastly nightmares as a dispassionate observer, watching through an artificial lens and analyzing from the safety of abstract distance. I think I can still write about such horrendous ordeals, but the process is no longer as easy as it once was. The pain and fears associated with fictional calamities too closely resemble the reality I see playing out worldwide today in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I wonder whether the harsh reality of catastrophic events becomes real only when the events come so close they cause the hair on the back of one’s neck to stand up? The anguish suffered by Syrian refugees in recent years has been visible, but distant. The pain and starvation that famine-plagued Somalians experience today is horrible and upsetting…but sufficiently distant to cushion the punch-in-the-gut horror the Somalians must feel. The terror and hopelessness that drive Central Americans to risk everything to reach the United States are real to me, but only in the same sense that a newscast about a fatality highway accident is real to me.
My hunch is that the intensity of my emotions about those events would expand exponentially, were I in the midst of them, watching from inside out, rather than from outside in. Compassion and empathy in the abstract morphs into love when confronted with concrete human suffering, I think. When realism embraces us and forces us to see ourselves—and feel ourselves—in the shoes of others suffering from the throes of unthinkable experiences, we become saturated with humanity. I am not suggesting that only when thrust into horrifying personal circumstances can we truly understand others’ suffering, but suffering must surely accelerate the process of understanding.
I watched a video sermon recorded by our church minister last Sunday. He closed the sermon by saying he hopes our collective experience with COVID-19 will lead us to greater tenderness with each other when the crisis passes. I think that’s what such experiences do to and for us. We become more understanding and compassionate toward others in similar circumstances; we do become more tender, I think. I hope we do. If we do, will it last? Can it fundamentally change us, the collective “we?” Time will tell.
In the meantime, I will continue to write about challenging experiences and dystopian futures, but it will no longer be as easy to do. I think my writing will show characters’ compassion grow as they thrash their way through the brambles.