Reading and politics: It all comes back to nuance.

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Watching students mature over the course of a school year is a fascinating part of my job. As children, it’s possible, and often ok, for them to think that life exists in binary categories: good/bad, safe/dangerous, nice/mean. Part of what I try to teach them over the course of the year, though, is that as they grow older, life gets more complex. We use characters in their books to talk about the gray in between it all. Needless to say, when I watch the news or scroll through social media, the lack of nuance is appalling, and it makes me want to disengage from political conversations completely–because I keep thinking: if my 13 year old students can recognize complexity, why can’t all these adults?

I recently read an op-ed where David Brooks’ lede reminded me why politics should be more fascinating and interesting, instead of anger-inducing: “We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in a society–politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics. Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions…The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal. But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own.”

Interestingly, this is what brings me to books. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (author of my favorite Olive Kitteridge as well as the thought provoking The Burgess Boys) is decidedly *not* a political story. The narrator, Lucy, is thinking back on a time when as a young mother in New York City, she was confined to a hospital room with a mysterious illness for several months. Her mother comes to visit for a week, and never leaves her bedside–but she hadn’t seen her mother after fleeing her impoverished, sometimes physically abusive childhood home. This is a story about how people can hold two truths in their mind at the same time: she had horrible memories of her mother, and yet, “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted.”

It’s interesting to go back and reread the quote from David Brooks about the macro world of politics and use it as a lens to understand the micro world of relationships: the simultaneous existence of different people who never really get everything they want; it’s messy; disappointment is normal…but it’s a beautiful, endless conversation. If Lucy Barton had chosen to only see the pain connected to her mother, she would have missed the complex comfort her mother was able to offer. She would have separated herself from a love that, though imperfect, gave her roots.

Reading, for me, has helped my brain attempt understand the motivations of people, to try to find the beauty that each voice can offer the world, even if I don’t agree with everything they may say or do. This is what I wish Americans would do right now: embrace the complexity of humanity. Stop the sweeping statements of Democrats are evil, Republicans are evil and look to find some nuance. Stop the “anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wrong” mindset and try on a different perspective, if only for a few minutes.

When I watch candidates on screen, I often wonder what the last piece of fiction they read was–and I offer up a tiny prayer that people are indeed reading fiction and memoir and giving themselves glimpses into the lives and loves and losses of others. And, per usual, and unintentionally, this post started in my mind as a celebration of nuance and ended with me being a reading cheerleader. Again. Ha. If you want a little more reading on the matter, check out this beautiful article, Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life by Arnold Weinstein from the New York Times last week. (Also, special thanks to Franciscan priest Richard Rohr and his writing on moving away from dualistic thinking, whose books Falling Upward and The Naked Now have been a game changer for me.)

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