Monday, September 2, 2013

Empathy 405: What I Learned Outside My Gate

A  couple weeks ago, I told you what a woman  named Ruby Paine had taught me in the past year about the limits of my own  responses in teaching me the internal experience of characters whose families had lived In economic circumstances much different from my own.  You asked ... Well, Henrietta asked. And I promised you more.

Today I'm going to tell you about  the other big lesson in empathy I gained from my first year at the Resource Center, and what that lesson means to our writing.

There are course materials: watch the film below. For extra credit, read The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, by Bruce Perry.

My understanding had always been that traumatic experiences changed the way we thought about subsequent experiences. I also knew that early events could have a profound effect on a person's life. I just didn't know how profound.

The flaw in my thinking lay in the phrase I just wrote: "traumatic experiences changed the way we thought..." I now know that traumatic experiences change - on the cellular level - the brains we have to think with. Our earliest experiences, those  that take place during infancy or earlier, form us in ways that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

A character born into a particular economic class will likely operate on assumptions she never subjects to rational thought. A character whose infancy was marked by the trauma of violence or extreme neglect responds to impulses that come from a place where rational thought is impossible.

Doesn't this explain why some novels fall flat? Take, for clarity's sake, an extreme example: our character, Lulu, has lived a continual heartbreak that started when her father punched her pregnant mother in the belly before she was born. Now she is about to jump off the bridge when a stranger walks up and explains The Four Spiritual Laws. "Oh," she says, "I see." And her life is changed forever.

There is a way to change Lulu's life. It just doesn't involve a big answer to a big question, at least not at first. Otherwise, Jesus could have gotten to the point with the woman at the well a lot quicker, and Clarence Oddbody could have made a few salient points about George Baileys wonderful life and run the credits.

It turns out the big healer is relationships. (Isn't that handy for those of us who write stories about husbands and wives and parents and children and angels and Jimmy Stewart?) Other things help as well, like touch (think of a mother's loving hand, and Clarence's arm around the shoulder), and like rhythmic movement (think of a father rocking his child and Clarence and George walking the streets of Bedford Falls).

I urge you to watch the film.  It's shorter than the one I shared last time. Once you've seen it, I dare you you to try not reading the book.


Henrietta Frankensee said...

Thank you! Thank you! This comes at a profound time for me. My brain is healing and I suffer terrible remorse and fear for my child whose brain I damaged. Believe me, the subtlety of words and actions, the way effect flies below the radar is damaging. There needs not be a single word spoken and certainly not a blow or bruise for 'normal' to be distorted.
I love what you say about relationships, touch and rhythmic movement! If we writers zero in on the relationships for our characters and leave off 'solution finding' we will write authentic novels. Who knows but God how the intricate unique wiring of my brain comes through in the words I write. Who knows but God how my words impact the intricate unique wiring of each separate brain they encounter. Those who think they write outside the influence of God deceive themselves. Truth can still be in their words if the reader is discerning (using God's filter).
Thanks again!

Patti Hill said...

Oh my. Without going into personal details, this is very impacting to me and, hopefully, to my writing. Thanks for sharing and for doing the work you do, Katy.

Kathleen Popa said...

Yes, this is troubling stuff, isn't it? I take comfort in knowing that relationships heal, that in the end, it's always love. How like God to corner us this way.

Henrietta and Patti, the fact that this message touches you so deeply puts you in a unique position to write beautiful stories that no one else can write. How many people get it, that you can't logic your way out of your brokenness, that you have to walk out, and that a friend to hold your hand can make it all possible?