On my flight back from Boston a few weeks back, I was reading my copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression. A man across the aisle from me asked if he could talk to me about my book, and I did something I rarely do on a flight: I struck up a conversation.
It turned out that he was also a survivor of depression, but he said he could never read a book like that in public. “I’d have to be in my bedroom with the door locked.”
For the next 45 minutes in the air, and then for a few more minutes around baggage claim, we talked about depression, our families, finding community in new places (he had recently retired to Israel after living in Canada for most of his adult life).
And there were definitely times when I could tell we could have had a contentious turn in the conversation. Flash points where it would’ve been easy to veer into an argument. But the sparks never landed on kindling.
We found we had something in common that was worth exploring.
A little over a week later, I found myself in the hospital. Long story short: I was losing blood faster than my body could replace it. Doctors needed to find the leak and plug it.
In-between procedures and transfusions, I spent time in a room separated by a curtain from an older man with breathing and mobility issues. My roommate and I had little in common. This could best be summarized by the time he woke me up at 4 AM, watching a televangelist encourage people to “send a donation; plant a seed of $58 to become one of the eleven-hundred and twenty-eight miracles,” or something similar.
I could have dwelled on our differences, or my annoyance with being woken up at such a weird time. I’d had no real food for almost two days, been poked, prodded, and had cameras peering into every corner of my digestive system. I had plenty of reasons to react with anger.
But I thought about the why. I thought about the times he’d spoken to his visitors about how he wished he could get out of the hospital and get home for some real healing. Some “soul healing.”
He was looking for comfort. He wasn’t writing a check. He just wanted something to take his mind off being in that bed, being woken up for his breathing treatments, and not knowing when the Doctors would finally say he was well enough to go home.
And I could relate to the idea that real healing doesn’t necessarily take place in the hospital, where your sleep is interrupted by new tests, new hypotheses for your care, or just the sounds and smells of illness.
There’s a Buddhist concept of non-duality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
As best I can explain it, it’s the idea that labelling the differences between yourself and others reinforces false notions of the self.
In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gumarantana describes it this way:
“The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised…”
With these encounters, I could have focused on the differences between myself and each of these men. Differences of age, religion, attitude, political views, and so on. I could have drawn up many lines between us and left it at that.
But both of those times, the value of engaging with the moment came from recognizing that for all the things that separated us, we were all in need of healing. We were all connected to a desire to live and be well.
If I build a wall between you and me, I’m not only establishing a false idea of who you are based on my limited perception, I’m clinging to a potentially false notion of who I am.
This is one of the reasons I stress thinking about empathy with my writing students.
When writing, I want my students to remember that every character should be a specific individual, and to remember that not everyone thinks and behaves exactly as they would. In this way, I am teaching them about separating themselves from others.
But at the same time, there is a need to ground your writing with the perspective of that other fictional person in order to make an honest attempt at depicting their actions and reactions.
Part of that process needs to be seeing the center of the Venn Diagram:
How are you not so different from this other person?
If you base their uniqueness only on a representation of their difference, you miss the connections they could have with other characters in the story, or potential points of connection with the audience.
A villain is more engaging if we can see something of ourselves in them. The relationships between characters becomes more complicated if they see there isn’t just difference between them, but common bonds.
The X-Men stories wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the central friction between Charles Xavier and Magneto: two mutants who both want to protect those like them and help them see their potential, but whose difference emerges from how they view The Other (humans).
Or see the potential for comedy in this play between difference and commonality, like in Home Alone where Kevin’s mom, Kate, rides back to Chicago in a truck with Gus Polinski and his polka band. These characters couldn’t seem more different, until Gus talks about how the whole band needs to spend the holidays away from their families, too. But Gus’s attempt at finding common ground also sparks his story of trying to relate to Kate by telling about the time he left his son behind on accident, just like her… Except that Gus left his kid in a funeral home. For hours. Alone.
All of these things combined take a seemingly one-note polka band gag and use that common ground to give it dimension and resonance with the rest of the story.
But non-dualistic thinking can also help with another bad habit of writers: envy
In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:
We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.
The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.
A writer looks at someone whose work they appreciate, and get disheartened at their own lack of skill or achievement.
A writer looks at people they consider their peers, and seeing their accomplishments, feels frustration that they don’t see themselves matching up.
A writer looks at their own work in comparison with what they’ve done in the past and sees a failure to recapture who they once were, or a failure to progress beyond who they think they once were.
All of these envious moments focus on difference: There is you and there is me. There is me then and me now.
But what if it were possible to focus on something other than those differences? To find those pedal points in both of your songs that resonate deep within the both of you?
Because if we only focus on the success of others, we erase their struggles, which could show us how alike we may be.
If we only focus on part of our past experience, or on part of our desired future, we skip over any number of valuable moments that inform us, shape us, and give us something worth saying.
When you encounter envy, ask yourself what you have in common with this person. What do you share?
Try not to use this as a springboard for the thought of “If we’re so similar, why are they so better off?” That’s falling back on reinforcing difference.
But seeing what you have in common can remind you of the positive things you see in yourself. If you can focus there, you can turn envy into admiration, and share some of that admiration with yourself.
And, especially when dealing with your peers, envy is the enemy of community.
Anything that can highlight the difference between yourself and others that you wish to work with or share something with will start building that wall between you.
That dualistic thinking and envy can spill out in the workshop session, on social media, in your work with others. And these spills aren’t often easily wiped away.
But your actions and your effort to see what unites you with others can also spread. And if you practice that, you may encourage others around you to practice that same kind of radical empathy.