Compassion for the Character Sitting Next to You
Finals week wrapped up and I headed home on an early flight, fun-reading book in my carry-on bag. I had been waiting since August to read this novel; it sat on my bedside table for months, spine uncracked and taunting. The workshop comments and the grading and the office hours and the adjusting to my first semester in the program had come between me and this book for months, but no longer! The semester’s work was done and now I was going to sit in the crampy airplane seat and read the shit out of this awesome book, all the way from Denver to New York.
The flight attendant reminded us to secure our masks before we helped other people, covering her mouth with the yellow cup of a mouthpiece as she demonstrated. I pretended to watch, eyes flicking between her and the book in my lap. The plane started to taxi, then gained speed as it took off.
And then a baby began to cry, and another. I am prone to exaggeration sometimes, but not when I say there were two babies in front of me, a toddler in the aisle seat who drooled on my arm as she slept, and two more behind me. All of them wailed except for the sleeping drooler, whom I envied for her selective hearing.
Irrational rage started to blossom in my gut. I stared at the book in my lap. I looked at my watch. I sent death glares to the frazzled parents in eyeshot, judging every attempt they made to calm their children. The four hours of peaceful reading I’d envisioned shrank and disappeared from view as we shot into the clouds.
This—the not reading; the wailing babies—was not a big deal, and yet an oversized frustration with the situation occupied my thoughts for the first hour of the flight. And then I started thinking instead about writing, and my mind made the requisite shift into that certain view of everything we have when we write—more compassionate and expansive; more willing to question instead of judge; more generous. And then I felt bad for being so nasty in my thoughts.
We make a pact with ourselves and the world as writers, to read what we see critically and with compassion. To question our observations and interpret their humanity. To be generous; to look and think deeply rather than relying on first impressions or snap judgments. These are lofty goals, for sure. As I move around the world on a daily basis, I’m terrible at most of them. But when I write, I’m always trying to see the people and the world around me with that best writerly self.
This is what I learned on the plane that morning, and what I’m trying to remind myself and you and all of us, especially when the media is a daily reminder of how dangerously reductive it is to constantly categorize and judge people: Cast your writerly eye upon the world in your most frustrating moments, pushing aside your impatience to see people as their roundest, fullest selves. When you give the richness of character development to those who drive you crazy, it is impossible to hate them. If we can use that generosity of spirit with the characters we invent on the page, we should absolutely be doing it with the actual people who surround us.
Toward the end of the flight, the sun started to rise, casting streams of light on the seat backs. A baby in the row ahead raised himself up from his mother’s lap to examine the rays and stroke the sunlight gently, watching how it played on his tiny hands. Then he ran his mouth along the back of the seat, trying to lick the light right off the germy plastic. He left a trail of drool that glimmered. It was gross, of course. But because I was still in that writer’s frame of mind, it was beautiful, too: to see a lovely thing and want to swallow that loveliness whole. When we started the descent, the baby screamed anew as the air pressure changed. But the wails were full of the light he’d consumed, so alive and awake and present. I closed my eyes and listened to him howl.