One of the double-edged swords of my personality is that I try really hard to find common ground with people.
On the one hand, seeking common ground forges connections; it recognizes shared experiences and our ultimate shared humanity. It makes me an agreeable person on the whole.
But sometimes the ground isn’t common. It’s a comfort to think we are all the same in the end, but it can be a fiction that minimizes the extent to which we don’t walk down the same streets in the same bodies.
By trying too hard to bridge gaps, you can end up minimizing crucial differences that deserve to be seen because they need to be acted upon rather than simply patched over.
Rejecting common ground is uncomfortable. Letting those differences explode into action that changes the world is uncomfortable. Facing an uncertain future is uncomfortable.
But sometimes we should be uncomfortable.
Unequal uncomfortableness should make us uncomfortable
The disease at the heart of this pandemic, which I have now thankfully recovered from, has one of the most fundamental and unnerving symptoms imaginable: it takes your breath away.
It’s uncomfortable, even when it doesn’t end up being debilitating or fatal.
And even if you don’t actively have the disease, its existence and our necessary adjustments as a society have caused an immense amount of pain and economic suffering.
On top of that, many of our best remedies for alleviating the compounding stress of the pandemic are unavailable to us. It’s hard to see friends and loved ones and feel physical connection. We can’t blow off steam at bars or restaurants or concerts or sporting events. We’ve largely been stuck within the same walls for three months.
At every turn we’re constrained and uncomfortable.
But we do not experience this disease equally uncomfortably. This has been an awful and difficult year for nearly everyone, but it has not been an equally awful and difficult year. The pandemic has made that impossible to ignore.
Some of us are working from home, able to pick and choose which risks we take, having our needs serviced by “essential workers” who our society treats utterly expendably,
Others are facing wrenching choices as they weigh their own health and their loved ones’ well-being against their economic survival. Hunger is surging.
And others are multi-billionaires siting atop one of the tech companies that are rapaciously eating up what’s left of our economy and raking in billions more.
If you have largely experienced this disease or the injustice at the heart of the protests that have erupted in nearly every city in America as an abstraction: that should make you uncomfortable.
Conflict and common ground
The pandemic has exposed the extent to which we are living in different worlds in which we don’t share enough of the same common ground. And yet this summer has also been marked by a profound outpouring of empathy and belief.
We have had cathartic moments where we simultaneously recognized our lack of common ground at the same time that many joined together in a shared ideal of human justice.
In case it’s not already apparent, this blog post is intended for people who might share the empathy at the heart of that movement, who might have even marched or posted in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but who might now be experiencing a phenomenon I saw described on Twitter last week as “ally fatigue.”
Even if you’re sympathetic on the whole, you might now be growing uncomfortable. Maybe you want to be able to return to brunching on the weekend instead of protesting now that your city is opening up. Maybe you didn’t like some of the destruction that happened concurrently with the protests. Maybe you have had people nudge you away from the way you showed up and you didn’t like that your good intentions were stepped on.
It’s tempting to want to go back to feeling common ground. To have some normalcy restored. To want everything to go away so we can go back to being comfortable.
I’d urge you, just as I’m urging myself today, to stay uncomfortable. The work isn’t done.
What are you going to leave behind?
There’s an incredible moment in G. Willow Wilson’s novel The Bird King where one of the characters tells a parable about a group of birds who are traveling a great distance to find the Bird King to help restore birds to greatness.
A falcon gets distracted on the way by a gold bracelet in the rocks, which it struggles to pry away. Eventually, after nearly losing the rest of the group, the falcon gives up and goes to rejoin another bird, a hoopoe. By taking flight, the falcon frees the bracelet.
“‘Look, falcon,’ said the hoopoe. ‘Your bracelet is free at least.’ But the falcon shook her head. ‘It was never mine,’ she said. ‘It was only weight, and I am glad not to carry it.’ And on they flew.”
It’s easy to forget that we’re all passing through on this planet, that everything we own will dissolve to dust in time. That anything we pick up along the way was never really ours to begin with, and only serves as weight as long as we’re carrying it.
So what are you going to do while you’re here? Are you going to try to dig a bracelet out of the rock or are you going to join the flock making the difficult journey to find the Bird King?
You might need to learn to leave behind some things you might otherwise have treasured to help restore us to greatness. That can be uncomfortable.
And oh yeah the writing advice
And if you’ve read this far, you might be wondering… uh… Nathan what does this have to do with writing?
ALL OF IT!
So many writers are too easy on their protagonists, they don’t dig deep into their characters’ souls, and they don’t put sufficient obstacles in their way. They don’t want their protagonist to be uncomfortable. They want to write a nice world with nice things rather than embracing a world that’s uncomfortable and where the nice things are hard-won and earned in the end.
Whether you’re living or writing or both: now is the time to embrace being uncomfortable.
It’s the only way to do anything worthwhile.
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Art: The Voyage of Life: Manhood by Thomas Cole