Friday, January 5, 2018


The Good and the Evil, Imre Ámos, 1938

I woke up this morning with the flu, so I’m even more muzzy-headed than usual. The thermostat is turned up to an environmentally irresponsible 72 degrees, and I’m clutching a heating pad against my belly, trying to quiet the chills. I probably shouldn’t be writing anything, not even a blog post. But I can’t seem to resist the urge. Chalk it up to fever-diminished impulse control. So here goes—

Back at Thanksgiving, I wrote up a longish Facebook post about spending the holiday with my mother and her partner, deep in rural Trumpland. Chapter 16 was kind enough to publish a slightly modified version of it this week, which you can read here.

Writers make a nervous bargain with their readers. We get the gratification of sharing our work, and in return we accept that people are 100% entitled to take from it what they will. Once something’s out of our hands, it has a life of its own, and we don’t get to run around trying to referee its relationship with the world.

This deal has its down side. There are people who seem to read with hostile intent, determined to find a reflection of their own bad faith in someone else’s words. But those people are, thankfully, very few. Most readers meet your work with generosity and intelligence, and sometimes they find things that you could never have hidden there yourself. They find the beauty of their own souls—their own sorrow or joy or love.

Judging by comments on Facebook and a few private messages, it seems like most people read my Thanksgiving essay as a commentary on the way love and shared ritual help us transcend the things that divide us. I think that’s a lovely way to receive it. I’m happy to know that people are so ready—eager, even—to find possibilities for redemption. Part of me wants to believe in redemption.

If you asked me, though, what I was trying to get at in that essay, I’d have to say that it has little to do with redemption or transcendence. (I know, I know — I just said I don’t get to referee how my words are read. Think of this as an addendum.) What fascinated me about that day was the way beauty and ugliness existed in such close proximity, distinct but thoroughly entwined.

In response to one of the private messages I received, I wrote, “One of the saddest things to me about our current predicament is the way no one seems willing to accept the contradictions of the human soul. Acceptance = cowardice to a lot of my friends. Cowardice, or appeasement, or...something. Anyway, I think you have to take people whole and as you find them—or try to, at least.”

I think that whether we try to deny the humanity of people who have evil ideas or minimize the powerful reality of those ideas, we’re making the same mistake. We're turning away from the capacity for evil that lurks within us. It's a dangerous arrogance. My grandmother used to say that you’re never more in danger of hell than when you’re congratulating yourself for being a good person, and all these years later—having abandoned the notion of hell altogether—I still think often about those words. The challenge of being human is seeing yourself in what you abhor. There are no monsters. We are all monsters.


Efi said...

Always a pleasure reading you.
I should visit more often.

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