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.
On a fundamental level: This has been a year defined by breaths being taken away prematurely, but those breaths are not being taken away equally.
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!
Your entire novel should be about a protagonist who’s uncomfortable. Who has had the easy escape routes closed off. Who’s going on a difficult quest after which they’ll never be the same.
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
Wow! These are great words, ideas, pieces of advice. I’m so glad for your voice in the chorus.
Jan C says
Profoundly accurate! We can’t stop when it feels uncomfortable. We must keep the dialogue going and vote for readers who are willing to create equality.
Joanna van der Gracht says
Mr. Bransford, You gave me a good bit to think about with this post. My mind has been running along the same track as yours, but I could not quite articulate and organise my emotions as you have done.. Your advice about incorporating the discomfort I am feeling into the psyche of my protagonist is so right. I don’t know why I didn’t catch that on my own, but I didn’t. I have been doing all I can to keep COVID away from my novel and I’ve wondered why there’s something false about every one of my characters? Life is COVID right now and I can no more ignore that than I can pretend it won’t start turning cold in October.
JOHN T. SHEA says
“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.”
An interesting and provocative thought, Nathan! As I type this on my Apple computer and follow you and others on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram etc. I remind myself that I still have a choice in that matter, and that there was a time before I ever patronised any of those big tech companies. WE make those multi-billionaires rich and richer, directly and indirectly, by using and contributing to their services to such an extent that we may be tempted to believe that theirs are the only public, common spaces open to us. We work hard to keep those multi-billionaires atop their fortunes, sometimes even tearing each other apart in online gladiatorial bouts on Twitter, in particular.
I have already set limits to my (Anti?)Social Media, which is mostly links to comments I make here and on other blogs and websites. I rarely comment directly on Twitter or Instagram, and just sometimes on Facebook. That much takes more than enough of my time and effort.
Tom Tripp says
That was great, Nathan. Thanks.
Angela Brown says
Words well said.
Neil Larkins says
Great words, Nathan. Thanks.
Christina Carson says
Nathan, I have followed you for years as your writing advice has always been down-to-earth and uncommonly useful. Thank you for that. And of late, you make me even more grateful to know who you are – a human being who continually speaks from his heart, his Truth. It has been my experience that the upside of discomfort, to whatever degree it exposes us, is in fact, the nature of experience that results in true change, informing us of the wisdom within us. We come out the other side of those adventures with a depth of understanding that fosters new behaviors, new discernment. That’s the upward spiral. Thank you for your encouragement to keep on. Surely we can do better than we have.
Nora Lester Murad says
Ally fatigue? #BlackLivesMatter is a liberation movement that will liberate everyone. I’m a white person but am fighting for myself as much as for anyone else. Folks are less likely to tire out if they recognize their own self-interest in equality. Great to have your posts on this.
Sue Graue says
Thank you, Nathan, for your insights and words. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought perhaps it would be the great equalizer. Truly, I said it out loud to friends and acquaintances. Of course, I was not correct in my thinking, once again confronted with a loss of innocence. Believing ‘we’ would all be facing the same and doing what’s right for all are my first thoughts. I have dealt with the loss of innocence over and over again, but love it as a point of reference, ultimately, for how I see myself. I am looking forward to seeing updates. Glad you are recovering, be well. My best, Sue
A brown author who is tired now says
Thank you so much for this amazing post. <3
Jane B Moore says
I just now read this but it is an outstanding piece of writing. As a black woman, but a black woman with privileges that many other blacks (and other people) don’t have access too, I was stopped in my tracks and made to think by this piece. Thank you.