Monday, March 07, 2011

Life, Spirituality, and Character Torture

I've been accused sometimes of indulging in character torture. It was a nice reviewer who accused me so it's okay. Besides, she was being honest. I like exploring how much suffering a person can endure and what happens to them when they are under life's onslaught. Poor Satha, Poor Psal, Poor Denise.

Okay, everyone has trials, and most people suffer. But there is a kind of horrible enduring that few people have to deal with in life. As Americans we like democratizing pain. We say, "be kind because everyone is fighting a battle." Or we say, "everyone suffers." But those platitudes aren't true. We should be kind because everyone is probably fighting a battle but that battle may not be about longterm, relentless, mixed, piled-on suffering. After all, a woman in Ethiopia who has lost eight children to starvation suffers a bit more than someone whose father has died. First because the woman in Ethiopia is suffering a thing few parents should experience and she has suffered it eight times. And secondly because the person whose father has died is experiencing what is common to all men. The death of a parent is terrible but it is normal and par for the course. It is a suffering we all have to face in life.

Although pain should not be democratized, some suffering is still hard to evaluate. A woman who is raped by six men and beaten to within a minute of her life has suffered but has she suffered more than a woman who is date-raped by one guy who raped her when she was out of it? Yes, all things being equal, I think so. The woman who was date-raped has suffered yes, and will be scarred for life. But she did not hear the verbal taunts and feel the powerful. strikes against her body as the woman raped by the six men. And although the once-raped girl will live in fear of any man she sees, the six-times raped girl will be devastated in that way and much more. It offends the American heart to hear such things but's true.  But then, other things could enter the mix. The girl who had been raped by one guy might have been raped by her father or might have lost her baby a few years back and might be in financial crises. So yes, we cannot truly quantify or qualify...but all things being equal cannot democratize all pain and put all suffering on an equal level. And when pain and suffering begins to be piled on...then we enter the realm of extraordinary suffering and...character torture.

As Americans, those who want to democratize pain want to

A) show that the whining sufferer isn't as strong as other sufferers and therefore should stop whining
B) believe that people are able to handle their own suffering by themselves
C) trust that the universe just isn't gonna treat one person worse than another
D) believe that if someone has a life where many aspects of their life is going terribly wrong...then that sufferer must be partly to blame.

But all this is not true. Suffering is often a slippery slope. One bad bit of luck or wrong action is often repaired. But sometimes one bit of bad luck can lead to more devastation which leads to more devastation which leads to more.

For instance, a kid could buy a car with tints. He drives it in an areas where tinted cars are not allowed. He is given a ticket by the cops. The kid doesn't have the money to pay the ticket so ends up in court with a warrant. Meanwhile, kid also ends up with other cops in other areas of the county and because of that warrant ends up with another ticket. Soon kid has tickets for $500 or so all based on that. Then car is taken away and kid can't drive to his job. See what I mean. I wouldn't call that melodrama but it could become like it.

I bring up "melodrama" because Maya Angelou once said that she didn't write too much about the bad things that happened in her life because if she wrote about all that happened at any one time that folks would consider the work melodramatic. The woman knows whereof she speaks. But as a writer, one attempts to share one's heart and one's idea of life anyway. It's difficult, because the shallow human mind either balks at hearing about the pain of others, starts comparing and democratizing pain, or is irked at life and love being pushed upon it.

Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. Proverbs 14:10

In the Bible, St Peter writes:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 1 Peter 4:12

And the prophet Isaiah writes about the enemy coming in like a flood.
When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him. Isaiah 59:19

The promise is that God will help. In a story, this is difficult to do. Sadly, weirdly, the evolution of stories aims toward humanism: no deus ex-machinas allowed. Either a person is helped by human agencies (in that case the person is seen as a victim and (if a woman) as pandering to the helpless woman stereotype. Or the person is overwhelmed by the cruelties of life and remains undefeated, or the person is overwhelmed by the cruelties of life but is defeated in soul, mind, and body. (Nihilism or human persevereance) But God cannot help. Nor can help be proferred by a fairy, or other magical forces. Very difficult in even a speculative-fiction story.  And yet, this is the point of Christianity: that God is a present help in trouble. So story affects our faith and faith affects our story...and it's a hard road for a writer and a Christian human being to walk. Especially a Christian. Because Christianity is about God being helpful. It's not Islam where one submits to fatalism and the power of God, and it's not Buddhism where one surrenders to fate, and it's not Hinduism where reincarnation gets into the mix.

So yeah, there are times in some lives where the enemy comes in like a flood. And there are lives which are so flooded, they live a water-logged life. Not to mention the powers that be -- legal authorities, and other abusers of power such as social services, schools, banks, etc. But unlike anarchical folks who blame everything on politics or other looming social powers and who think all will be well with better politicians in power, I cannot think of the world's mess being changed by any human entity (in short, humanism.)

Quite simply, the world, the flesh, and the devil exist; humanism/socialism/religion/spirituality etc cannot repair anything once and forever. Of course, kindness goes a long way. And much of human pain can be eased by folks just learning to keep their mouth closed. Without a know-it-all philosopher/social worker/minister/neighbor a person can breathe easily. And religion and spirituality without a true faith in Christ won't help matters either. This leads to the spiritual question: We all know folks who we simply cannot comfort because their lives are just so horribly unfair and so horribly bad that one feels the devil must be out to get them. Mercifully, sometimes folks are pulled out of such lives without losing their faith. As one of the Biblical proverbs states:

First, help me never to tell a lie. Second, give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. Proverbs 30: 8,9

I keep trying to get my older son to understand that Life is real. I don't th ink the young are aware of how badly a life can go. One has to build one's boat before the storm hits.

So yeah, I want to write about the hardness of life...and I want to write about people who encounter the hardness of life -- the storms of life, if you will-- in a ricketty boat. But I don't want it to be melodrama if fiction and/or if a Memoir...piling it on or whining.

Endurance is a trait that is rarely understood and rarely done well in a novel. But when it is done well...with all the storytelling elements required of this modern generation of fiction-lovers... it works. Am trusting God to help me write well, to help me speak of suffering not only convincingly but also with hope. Will see. 
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