I have noticed that if you complain about the right thing, your complaints might be taken as a sign of depth. The right thing, often, is suffering on a grand scale. Therefore, if you say: Isn’t it horrible what happened in Haiti, or Aushwitz, or Darfur—your pity for the dead or tortured is sometimes mistaken for holy compassion.
Don’t get me wrong—anyone presented with the startling facts of those three examples has every right to express horror. It’s as natural as turning your eyes from the sun. But I would not call this an expression of depth. To me, depth is that which lies far below the surface, and horror, however justified and with all respect to Steven King, is entirely a surface reaction. It is the first reaction, a hiccup of the alarmed psyche.
Because always below the surface of death, and always below the surface of torture and loss and disease, there runs something else beyond shock and despair. The stillness that is true compassion can seem unsympathetic at times – although it is just the opposite. To label someone a victim is merely to label them as powerless, and I don’t see how this is compassionate or how it can ever help anyone.
I think about this as I am writing stories. My position, as author, must always be stillness. This is not always so easy to maintain. Dramatic things happen in my stories, and I want my reader to experience the full push and pull of that drama. Yet it is not my job to make things better or worse than they actually are; my job is to merely render my stories accurately. If I have concocted something dramatic and exciting, my accuracy will reveal it is as such. If I have not, all the gnashing and adjective-izing in the world won’t make it more than it is.
In my life I have lent a helping hand, and I have provided a shoulder to cry on, and I have agreed that such-and-such was terrible, and I will do so all again. But just as I cannot become caught in the whirlpool of my characters’ drama if I want to render them honestly, so too I am of most use to someone suffering when I stand back and observe the suffering for what it always is—temporary. Nothing is of greater comfort to someone buffeted by events than the compassionate stillness of another. Within that stillness lays the true depth of life, the position to which we are always seeking our return.