In my posts to this website, as well as in my fiction, I’m conscious of writing from the point of view of an individual. The argument goes that when we depict personal experience, we speak for many others, even the whole of human experience. But do we?
I like to think that if I succeed in conveying my experiences vividly enough, readers will have some sense of what it’s like, for example, to settle in the United States after a childhood in England, to live with a disability or, as in my forthcoming novel Caroline, to have lived in New York City in Reagan’s America of the early 1980s.
However, I do worry that focus on ourselves as individuals can make us less sensitive to the concerns of others. Perhaps more accurately, does sensitivity to my own experiences only mislead me into believing I better understand others?
This doubt can make me question the value of my writing. How can my experience as an immigrant who came to America because his father was promoted within an international corporation help readers understand someone who came here to escape persecution? When I write about the experiences of a blind person, do I risk losing readers who would prefer not to deal with something that scares them? If I succeed in conveying what it was like to be a young professional in 1980s New York City, how exactly does that help a reader appreciate the daily lives of today’s smartphone generation?
In coming to terms with our own lives in order to help us understand universal experience, we run the risk not only of self-absorption, but more importantly, of so fragmenting our understanding that we lose our sense of society.
When I was younger, I devoured international news. I wanted to know what was happening in South Africa, Cambodia and behind the Iron Curtain. By analogy with the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, I felt that if I stayed aware of developments and talked about them, I might contribute to a larger movement toward pressuring autocratic governments into yielding to democratic reforms. I don’t recall if I consciously thought it, but why else keep on top of that news?
Less sanguine today, I’m less attentive to foreign news. I find myself thinking there’s nothing I can do about Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, so why expend mental energy there? I’m being unfair to myself, but only a little. I’m in a comfortable place. I feel for the people in those and other countries, but there’s nothing I can do.
The dilemmas the pandemic have created are closer to home. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Aaron E. Carroll contends that the current administration’s emphasis on perfect COVID tests, available mainly to a fortunate few, should be replaced by a less-than-perfect test available to all and easily administered at home. Emphasis on the individual, he contends, is compromising the fight against the virus.
When the COVID vaccine was hard to get but I found a way, I didn’t hesitate to assert my privilege, even though I was conscious that I was surely taking the place of someone I didn’t know but who might have had more need. I wrote about it here. Now, in this era when testing is prioritized, I am not among the fortunate few. The only way I can get a COVID test is to join a block-long line in the subfreezing cold at the one place in this neighborhood that has them. I can’t stand for many minutes without serious back pain, so it doesn’t seem like a viable option. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I’m amenable to Carroll’s argument that imperfect tests are better for the country than ideal tests.
Civilization is a constantly see-sawing balance between ego and philia, between the apparent needs of the self and the desire that our fellow human beings enjoy satisfying lives. But perhaps it would help us deal with our problems if we recognized that we’re all starting from the same point: me. In today’s United States, and arguably throughout American history, we tend to see the opposition as between libertarians and liberals, as between those who prioritize freedom of the individual against those who emphasize the place of individuals in a larger society. The role of “me” is obvious in the case of libertarians. In that of liberals like me, although we talk in terms of society, we single out a host of personal situations as deserving special consideration, whether it’s a nursing home patient, an ex-convict, a working-class single parent, a trans-continental trucker, a person with a disability.
When writing about my experiences, I can tell myself I’m aiming for the universal, and yet I’m undeniably preoccupied with one person: me. It doesn’t feel good to admit it, except it does feel honest. Better still, by acknowledging it, I can fight through that “me.”