I was at a writing workshop on Saturday.  We had to shuffle on and button up the coat of a character we were writing about, inhabit them and get close, try to see life as they did, think and feel the way they would have.  For some writers the coat was made to measure, it was a perfect fit and they could enter the mind of their character easily.  Others found that the coat either drowned them or they could only get one arm in, so tight was it across the shoulders. In other words, they struggled to get inside their character’s head.  One man spoke up to explain that his character lived in the Sixteenth Century and that he found it difficult to write about the nature and predilections of someone so disconnected from these times.  ‘But human nature never changes,’ someone else in the class offered, ‘what your character looks upon might be different to now, but surely his reactions and motivations would be familiar?  Haven’t we all had the same feelings and emotions, wants and desires through the centuries?’  It was a helpful comment, not least because it was obvious, and we often overlook the obvious.  Yes, individuals might feel to different degrees, they might experience love and hatred at a different intensity, or sense joy and pain to a different level depending upon their distinct calibration, but the basic emotions – ecstasy, admiration, terror, grief, rage, loathing…. and they go on – every person feels them, always has done, always will do.

This got me thinking about the times we live in, about these days around us when it seems that society is becoming increasingly polarised and divided into camps.  Take, for example, politicians roaring (even more than usual) at each other from across the benches of the Houses of Parliament.  We can react by rolling our eyes at them and muttering, ‘I give up!’ but it’s good to remember that they, like us, are operating from the same basic arc of emotions.  Actions taken, positions adopted, words chosen: whether you agree with them or not, they are all drawn from the same well of human feelings.  I don’t know if taking into consideration the feelings driving words and sound bites will solve anything, but it might just give us pause and prevent us from jumping too quickly to accusations and conclusions.  Shuffling on the coat of another might slow down that knee jerk reaction, causing us to wonder, ‘maybe he/she is coming from a place of fear, anger, lack of trust, surprise.’  At the very least we’ll be distracted from taking offence if we look for the underlying emotion and our subsequent – and more considered – reaction might be more effective.

Trying to understand those who annoy us can be an uncomfortable space in which to stand, for out of it a great contradiction, one we don’t want to believe, might emerge.  We want to be as unique as our fingerprints, and to some degree we are, yet when we stand back and look, it’s clear that the same swirl of emotions drives us all.  I think this is why we love Superhero films.  We adore an extraordinary character who has outgrown the basic range of emotions and can act, always, for the greater good.  But Superheroes are few and far between.  The world is mostly populated with the ‘Everyman’ – that archetypal normal person, who will, from time to time, face extraordinary circumstances.  That’s most of us: ordinary people just trying to get through a difficult situation and it seems we need a lifetime of training to work out how to do it.

Song About Myself, by John Keats (extract)

There was a naughty boy,

And a naughty boy was he,

He ran away to Scotland

The people for to see —

There he found

That the ground

Was as hard,

That a yard

Was as long,

That a song

Was as merry,

That a cherry

Was as red,

That lead

Was as weighty,

That fourscore

Was as eighty,

That a door

Was as wooden

As in England —

So he stood in his shoes

And he wondered,

He wondered,

He stood in his

Shoes and he wondered.

3 thoughts on “Wondering

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