Posted in Novels

Cynics Are The Biggest Softies


Recently, I read a post where a couple of experienced bloggers explained what made them continue to read certain books. Others they would abandon for various reasons, but some held them to the end. It made me consider why I choose to finish certain books, and some I toss backward right in the middle of them.

I must identify with the protagonist. I must sense in their strengths and weaknesses their humanity, and therefore my own. I must leave a book knowing more about the world and myself. The protagonist doesn’t have to be anyone who anything like me in physicality, race, gender, age, or culture. I must, only, see me when I read; I must see us all.

I recently read a short novel by Earnest J. Gaines called “A Lesson Before Dying.” I don’t know if there’s something about first-person narratives that aids our identification with the main character, but I felt immediate recognition with Grant Wiggins. Why? He is not your typical good guy.

The novel centers on this black elementary school teacher in the poor South during the oppressing Jim Crow days. A big case comes up: one of Grant’s acquaintances (Jefferson) gets caught up with the bad crowd and ends up the only one alive after a failed robbery attempt and a shoot-out. Naturally, the all-white jury finds him guilty of murdering the white store owner, although he was innocent. and he is sentenced to death. This is all business as usual, though. The real kicker comes from Jefferson’s state appointed lawyer, who claims that Jefferson should be set free because he knows no better than a pig and it would be wrong to kill an ignorant pig, right?

We’re talking about a human being here. We realize that there was not only something wrong with the legal system back then, but also the prevailing mindset of an entire generation of Americans (or pick any culture that dehumanizes others because they are different). So, Grant’s auntie and Jefferson’s grandmother tries to convince Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson that he is not a stupid animal, but a man, before he dies. A hero would’ve taken on this assignment with courage and gusto, but Grant Wiggins is not a hero. He’s a cynic. He wants nothing to do with any of it.

That’s what got me.

Grant lived in a world where idealism could not thrive. As a teacher, as a young black man, he’s witnessed generations repeatedly fall into the same death-courting traps. No sign of relenting appears on the horizon. A strong, powerful system prevented his people from rising above their abject state, and he watched his people flounder in it. Once again, another type of man would’ve found the impetuous to fight the system, or at least do what he could to help the individual people around him. Not Grant. He’s over-educated, unhappy, frustrated, simmering with resentment, completely insensitive to the needs and desires of the very people he cares about.

He was human. It’s what happens to us when we really believe in something, when we really want something, when we want to correct a prevailing injustice, and we can’t. We are hurt. We stop caring. We become self-centered, sarcastic, cynical. The truth is, though, the worse we become reflects how much we initially cared. The point of this novel, then, was not so much the education of Jefferson (who ends up the real hero of the novel) but the education of Grant, and his getting his concern, love, and humanity back.

Cynicism is not, then, a position of strength; it is a scared, defensive position. It is not courage; it’s diametrically opposed to courage. The hurt person becomes afraid to care too much, afraid to be engulfed by the pain of fighting for a cause that will fight you back, make you bleed. So, what’s the cure? It begins, Gaines seems to show us, with trying to teach or convince others of some truth that you’re struggling to believe, that you’ve given up on.

Perhaps it works even when the other person does not respond. I tried the cure. I was attracted to a person who I believed was just like me: hurt, defensive, cynical. Even now, I believe that we loved each other on some level. I didn’t trust relationships, though. Growing up with the emotional dearth that I did, I initially had no hopes. But I begin to think, if I could just convince him that it was possible to trust again then maybe I would begin to believe, too. He could not respond. I was disappointed, but I realized that I had grown. I believed again. It will still be a long, hard road, but I would make it.

Even though I have moved past our relationship, I don’t blame him for not responding. I respect the hurts of others. I only pray that one day he feels the hope and happiness that I feel now that I’ve let go of cynicism and embraced courage and empathy.

What about you? What qualities of your favorite characters have you identified with?

Posted in Poetry

The First and Best Lesson


My university’s student magazine recently published one of my poems. I was so excited that I did something that probably rarely happens: I decided to read the other selections in the magazine. It was the non-fiction that arrested my attention. Perhaps it was the theme of the section, but each essay described the author’s strained (sometimes downright harmful) relationship with a parent.

It has taken the past two years, but I have finally made peace with my own upbringing. After a short-term stint at therapy, many psychology and self-help books with their endless five-steps programs and an almost inhuman dose of willpower, courage, and sheer tenacity, I can honestly say that I forgive my parents, but especially my father, for my neglectful childhood and the havoc it has wreaked on my adult life. Not only have I forgiven them and recognized their humanity, but I am also able to move forward with my life with clarity, self-determination, and hope.

Despite the flowers and rainbows of this catharsis, though, I have learned to be a realist. Having a unreliable father (and that’s being kind) has irrevocably changed the way I view the world. I sometimes worry that I am doomed to a cycle of failed relationships, because of my lack of trust and high suspicion of my partner’s intentions and affection. The issues go deeper than relationships: For many years, I struggled to believe in life itself, its goodness, its worth. My faith in life had no chance to blossom because of early experiences.

Poetry helped, though. Some might complain that modern poetry is filled with sadness, isolation, disassociation, and emptiness, but every now and then we find an uplifting, gem of a poem. These gems often allow those with no other outlet to experience and feel things they might not have otherwise. Philip Booth’s First Lesson is one such poem. On the surface, the poem is simply a father teaching his daughter how to swim. On deeper levels, though, we find themes of trust, endurance, and faith. Read it for yourself:

First Lesson
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
—Philip Booth

And just like that I have seen a good father teach his daughter the first and most important lesson in life. Just as you must learn to float before you learn to swim, a daughter, a son, a human being must learn how to hold on and not give in when life deals them trouble.

How my heart softens at the comforting tone Booth’s speaker uses! The daughter is reassured of his support at this crucial point in her life lessons. It is, I believe, the father’s voice and the firm pressure of his hand holding up her head that convinces her the sea will do the same one day when he is not there. To be sure, before the sea can hold her or anyone it seems that the father’s presence is integral.

Yet, despite my lack of a father, I learn so much from this poem. Life may be an adventure, a journey towards our own self-actualization, but it is fraught with fears, obstacles, troubles. When we tire of fighting against the tide, we must learn how to hold on (or float) until we are strong again. We must trust that the sea will hold us up while we are weak and eventually carry us to our destination. Yes, we might not have had a father’s comforting hand to teach us how to have faith, but the sea will carry us nonetheless if we believe.

I learn faith from this poem. The lessons here sustain me far more than any practical advice can. Poetry triumphs again. How about you? Has poetry ever helped you make peace with a troubling aspect of your life?