The Passionate Heart of Fiction

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2011

Sometimes we are in the fortunate position of having work that is inextricably linked to who we are and how we move through this world. I observe this in my Outreach coworkers as they strive to define the community they work with and at the same time define who they themselves are. Stories play a large part in the work of outreach by slowly giving us a picture that leads to a deeper understanding of the person. And though we are enriched and humbled by hearing someone’s narrative it at times eludes us how best to translate our work. So I find it no accident that my coworkers for the most part are avid fiction readers. Fiction resembles the narratives we hear and gives us a picture of the whole person by addressing the intricate details of a life and simultaneously speaking of the human condition.

A coworker recently told me that reading the Chronicles of Narnia when he was a boy gave him an immeasurable gift in Aslan, the lion. As a spiritual guide for the children in Narnia, Aslan was the height of goodness and compassion; he was wise, enigmatic and strong. At a young age, my coworker had never known someone to be both stern and caring. The revelation, he said, was the understanding that there were options in life available to him.

Recognizing options is in fact vital to feeling control in one’s life which in turn affects mental health. Diverse thinking is the creative product of looking for options. To see the alternatives and opportunities in a situation often leads a person to be accommodating to self and others, and to see the other person’s argument. It is a road paved with the acceptance of others and ourselves and ultimately leads to compassion. And this is the legacy we receive when we read fiction.

This is precisely the point of a new study by a Toronto research group which is examining the effects of reading fiction. They report that in fact reading fiction substantially increases a person’s ability to feel empathy. They believe that through reading fiction, people are more able to be taken out of themselves to identify with the characters.

My coworkers were quick to spill the lessons they’d learned through reading fiction. Surprisingly, their responses poured out, lending it the feel of rehearsed sermons, studied pronouncements on life about how fiction can take you on a journey, from despising a character to a place of empathy and understanding; how it can connect you with the past and show you, with the utmost creativity, things that are right in front of you.

Sometimes a certain book is pivotal in your life. The Grapes of Wrath, I was told, “brought out the leftist in me.”

“Fiction made me more tolerant,” said one. “The Kite Runner helped me see that redemption was possible. Sometimes you need an example of something before you can put words to your feelings.” She went on to describe the significance of hearing the different perspectives from family members in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible; the valuable lessons of George Orwell’s Animal Farm to look deeper, that things aren’t always as good as they seem in the beginning and the reality of life that some people are more equal than other people. And although not in book form but movie fiction, the many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation which constantly faced “the other” with a mandate to not impose their will. Each episode was a lesson in reconciling one’s lifestyle with other different lifestyles. It presents the kind of twists and turns, said another coworker, that make you think about what you take for granted.

While cleaning tables at the end of the day, a volunteer recently commented that she is reminded of Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn whenever she comes to St. John’s Kitchen.

Among my coworkers most of us have read and loved Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, a narrative that could be anybody and everybody at St. John’s Kitchen. After the death of their parents, the two youngest children in the family are taken in, nurtured, and loved by the grandparents while the older teenaged siblings are left to fend for themselves. MacLeod holds the lives of these characters under a microscope for us to view with stark clarity the spiraling down of those left uncared for. By the end of the narrative we are deeply moved by the very different legacies of the siblings and the sad state of the oldest brother, who through no fault of his own, is now an alcoholic living in a single room. The reader is filled with compassion for the journey of this man.

The same consideration, however, is not often extended for members of our own community who are in a similar situation. Why? Because people can’t imagine the story that has come before the present day predicament of someone on the street. Fiction calls our attention to real life; to things that we might have missed otherwise. It gives you the story of the guy on the street corner, so in approaching him you can imagine that tragedies have come before this person.

Another work of fiction that informed our work at St. John’s Kitchen was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon. The book is narrated by a 15 year old boy who thinks differently. The boy falls somewhere on the autism spectrum but it is a credit to Haddon that he never mentions what that difference is. We are called upon in life to deal with people before us without always knowing what issues have befallen them. The ability to hear other perspectives just might yield an unimaginable nougat to carry with us.

Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) wrote The Cat in the Hat after reading an article condemning boring primary readers that “feature abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls.” Today, having sold 11 million copies worldwide and been translated into 12 languages including Latin, The Cat in the Hat is wonderful for its lunacy; its interpretation of a different reality. Sadly, in life we still seem to desire ‘courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls’ which is why I suppose we yearn, at least in fiction, for those adorable rascals Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Hermione Granger, Aladdin, Oliver Twist.

And thank goodness for those tales that at times save us from the rigidness which can settle into our lives. There is nothing quite as freeing as suspending our beliefs, allowing eccentricity, delusions and a blurring of the lines to keep us loose while we take a fantastical journey through Harry Potter, Keturah and Lord Death or Don Quixote.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett may have been the most important fiction I read this past year. People have denounced this book for what is misinterpreted as the arrogance of a white woman assuming she could rescue the maids. But there was not arrogance. Skeeter (the white woman) was living a stifling hell inside her head and she knew it. There is an immense difference between rescuing someone and journeying with them. And the difference lies in how much of yourself you commit to the relationship and how the relationship levels through mutual giving. This was the story of a journey, of relationship building, of sisterhood. They needed each other.

The controversy around The Help began to swirl at the same time that we lost Jack Layton. His message seemed the perfect antidote to the mud-slinging. We must be inclusive, generous and make sure no one is left behind. In delivering his message he gave his authentic self and thereby gained trust.

His message, just like the message in fiction, was always about identifying with another, finding common ground and arriving at that place of compassion. Because ultimately we all are inextricably linked.

Thanks to Ann Lauzon, Tom Friessen, Stewart Dunbar, Steve Gardin, Gretchen Jones and Jennifer Mains for sharing the fiction that informed them.

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