Living in modern urban culture, it is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a world beyond one’s ‘narrow domestic walls’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s pithy phrase). I am intensely interested in the world, but the daily circumlocutions of work and home, the breathless rush from one deadline to another, at times distances me from the wider reality we inhabit. I know full well that the lives we live perpetuate the illusion that the tiny pocket universe of our daily existence is all there is, and all that matters. We read of school shootings, police brutality, war, oil spills, and the heart clenches for a moment, and for that moment we are lifted out of that illusion. We are helpless before the horrors of the world. What’s the point of expending emotional energy on something we can’t change? When there are jobs to do, and children to raise, and bills to pay? It is so much easier to run back into the hidey-holes of our lives, especially if we are privileged enough to be far from the scenes of violence and destruction. Privilege, after all, means we can afford to not think about it.
But I am a writer. And I like to think of a writer – at least the kind I aspire to be – as a student of the world, immersed in the world. I know there are writers who believe in cutting themselves off from the world so they can work on their art. But the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have, in some form or another, been full participant-observers in this world of ours. So when I am tempted to look away from various external horrors to my own concerns, I remember this — and I remember also what I’ve learned through orbiting the sun for over a half-century: that avoiding or denying painful truths has terrible consequences, personal and otherwise.