This is a guest post by K. E. Argonza.
We cannot walk a mile in each other’s shoes.
A white man from Switzerland will never fully comprehend what it is to be a child soldier in Uganda, nor will a housewife and mother of three in Iowa ever understand being a Navy Seal. An artist in Austin, Texas will not know what a Red Cross doctor in Kabul feels like as he fits another casualty of war with a set of artificial legs.
I will never fully know what it’s like to be you and you will never know what it is like to be me.
We are trapped in the bodies we were born with and limited by a certain set of experiences that are available to us. From the moment we open our eyes, we begin to recognize facial features and from that moment on, we begin to discriminate. We grow older; we try to find our self-worth and our purpose in this complicated existence.
We search for social validation, which often comes in the form of seeking and supporting those who are like us, sometimes to the exclusion of those who are dissimilar.
In that search for our own identity and our place in this life, we seek to draw a circle around ourselves; a barrier that protects us from that which we find threatening, odd or challenging. Through our ignorance and lack of interaction, we make assumptions and stereotypes about others and create distance between our cliques.
That is where most of us make our great error. In living in this protective wall we close ourselves from the rest of the world and, like a fort under siege, the soul we seek to protect begins to starve and, eventually, dies. Without external input, we stifle our lives.
Nourishment can come in a myriad of ways and it can begin in the closest thing we have to Telepathy: Reading.
Every word that I place on a page opens up my thoughts to you. The more you read what I write, the more you can understand what goes through my head. Should I ever write an autobiography, then you will surely know more about me than you could ever ascertain from simply looking at, or even talking to, me. A good writer can make you see things through their eyes and can inadvertently break down social barriers.
Who we are, what we look like, our talents and our location dictate much of our experiences. We are born with these things placed upon us. The moment we begin to discriminate between ourselves, and those different from us, our soul starts to shrink.
Fiction can help regenerate what we lose the second we understand what sets us apart.
A Palestinian might read a story about a Jew. An American Soldier might read a story about an Afghan Arbakai (Militiaman). A progressive urbanite might read a story about a cowboy.
When it comes to perusing for things to read, we often search for things that we can relate to. Look at blogs and see how they exist in niches and clustered communities. We look for those who mirror us because it is easier to understand. It does not challenge our values or our schema. It keeps us in a box where we feel comfortable. If we do not look for things that reflect us, we might look for things that we covet or aspire to, but still, it is often within a certain cultural sphere.
In my opinion, this is where we do ourselves a great disservice.
I am, of course, not implying that we cannot hold to our own values. I do not ask a devout Christian to read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and convert to Buddhism. I merely challenge a reader to seek the stories that are unlike the ones he or she is ever to experience and in so doing, challenging their existential hypothesis. It can serve to reinforce or support what we think, or it can disprove it and show us where we have faltered.
Stories give us a narrative that makes these differences easier to digest.
Our eyes might discriminate but sensual descriptions unify. In the cold we get goose bumps, in the heat we sweat, and we can all marvel at a setting sun. A well-told story, a great work of fiction, has the ability to connect us because certain desires and experiences are universal. From that vantage point, we allow characters to explain themselves in a way that we would not allow in real life interaction.
I challenge anyone to read books about people and places that are different from anything they have ever known. I challenge you to find a perspective unlike your own and cognitively try to defend it, even if you do not agree with it.
In a world that is shrinking, we seem to have culturally (and politically) become more divided. As the world becomes interconnected, shouldn’t people seek connection as well?
Tell me, what was the last thing you read that truly challenged your perspective? What punched a hole in the bulwark of your social limitations?
K. E. Argonza has lived in four countries, was once fluent in three languages and has an annoying inability to stay in one place. This addle-minded millennial beat writer is an Afghanistan veteran, blogger at ShoesNeverWorn.com and can be followed on twitter @KEArgonza.