“The primary purpose of a novelist is to practice empathy.” –Lee Martin
I would posit that is also the primary purpose of a reader, or at least this particular reader, which may be why bibliotherapy (as distinguished from reading self-help books) has historically proven to be a rather effective practice for me. Reflection and empathy are fairly instinctive for me, so I tend to seek and find connections with my life in nearly everything I read. (I choose to believe that this a benign function of my natural empathy rather than a case of raging narcissism.) Some particularly meaningful texts for me include The Great Divorce and A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, The Shack by William P. Young, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and lately the novels of Susan Howatch.
Howatch’s novels, at least the two I have read so far, seem designed to exploit my navel-gazing tendencies in order to show me myself, which makes me wonder whether this is another case of God using a cute boy to lead me to the words I need to hear. (Sigh.) I opened the first book, Glittering Images, in search of answers about Friend, but wound up learning a great deal more about myself, and the most important takeaway was probably that “I was working to give [his] death meaning by my own rebirth,” which also echoes the lesson of The Great Divorce.
Glamorous Powers features a protagonist much more, I thought, like myself: possessed of intuition honed to the point of psychic ability, requiring more psychic space than was made available by his family, a teacher of difficult students, and, most importantly, wrestling with what he perceives as the call to leave his former calling. (Did I mention that he’s a monk? So…toss celibacy and austerity in there for good measure.) I dog-eared and underlined not a few passages that seemed particularly relevant:
“I think that any corruption of your call is going to come from the dark side of your personality within you, not from the dark forces of the Devil without.” (see the end of my post Born This Way)
“Because he was a good monk he did his best to go on as usual, but slowly the bad fairy tiptoed back into his life and all those unfortunate flaws in his personality began to emerge again. Our hero became restless and dissatisfied. He fought to overcome these feelings by diverting himself with hard work, but this only made him exhausted and once the echaustion began he slipped into a depression.” (What a succinct description of the last 18 months of my life!)
“I had the opportunity to rise above my own pain by thinking of someone other than myself.” (An admirable and oft-felt sentiment of mine, except when it degenerates into codependency.)
There was a point in my reading, however, when I started seeing others in the character that was supposed to be me, and myself in other characters. (Which leads me to wonder whether I am not so different from everyone as I thought!)
“Men had always let her down, never asking her to dance, never taking any genuine interest in her, never realising she was just as much a human being as the girls who has the luck to be pretty.”
“You married a woman you didn’t love because you knew that if she left you, you wouldn’t care enough to suffer as you’d suffered once before.” (Bend the genders a bit here…the point is a warning that my efforts to avoid my own suffering can do immeasurable damage to others.)
I guess I probably shouldn’t attempt to quote the entire book on here, which is kind of what I feel like doing. There’s a whole other dimension of parent-child relations that I haven’t even begun to process, so I’m just going to sum this session of bibliotherapy thus: Be yourself, and let others be themselves. My parents, particularly my mother, have had a hard time doing this for me, and that I think is one of the roots of my difficulty in doing so for others. But I’m determined to revisit the topic of boundaries this summer and beyond, and I do think it will enrich most, if not all, areas of my life.