I was back in my native southeastern Illinois last week, and I happened to have a little dust-up with a stranger at the local fitness center. Let’s say we should have agreed to disagree and left it at that, but we didn’t. She, a very nice elderly lady, broached a subject she shouldn’t have brought up if she really wanted to know my opinion. I tried to warn her. I said, “I’m not sure you want to start this conversation with me.” Nevertheless, she persisted.
She was soft-spoken and polite. Her white hair was neatly coifed, and she reminded me a bit of my own mother, who’s been gone now for 31 years. My mother would have held her tongue. She would have swallowed her own opinion for the sake of harmony. I have just enough of my father’s fire in me, though, to keep quiet sometimes. You have to push me a good ways for me to sacrifice accord for the sake of what I’m convinced is right, but there are just some things that require an expression of opinion, and this was one of those things.
So our argument progressed, and in public no-less, each of us thinking—and saying as much—the other was horribly misguided. My mother would have been ashamed of me. My father would have applauded. I’m still convinced I’m right, but even so, I feel just a tad guilty because, in spite of my warning the lady not to go down this path, she did, and I followed her, and we ended up in a tangle, each of us unwilling to concede.
I wonder now whether she, like I did, left the fitness center that morning and thought about our blowup throughout the day. I don’t know what she thinks about me, but I’m still convinced she’s a good person. Good people can be misguided. Good people can be wrong. Good people can abet the depraved, the immoral, the cruel, and the ethically hampered. Like all of us, good people can carry a touch of evil with them just as evil people can be capable of goodness.
This is why I keep writing—to try, time and time again, to figure out the mysteries of what it is to be human. Flannery O’Connor once said, “It is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth.” This is why I write. This is why I get interested in the come-and-go of all of us. This is why I create characters and set them into motion. I want to use both fiction and nonfiction to dramatize the struggles of people who sometimes come up against the truth of who they are and sometimes swerve away from that truth. Each thing I write, if I’m lucky, will offer a temporary clarity to what it means to move through this world. At the same time, the mysteries of the human heart run so deep, each attempt to define them is doomed to fail.
This is my Christmas wish to all of you who write, or otherwise create and attempt some measure of understanding—that you will accept that in some way your efforts will always come up short, but each try will take you further in your striving, as Flannery O’Connor also said, “to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”
That’s my wish for all of us, even the stranger in that fitness center—that we humble ourselves to the difficult task of being alive, that we interrogate ourselves and those around us while also appreciating the noble effort we all make to know more than we did the moment before.