Forcing ourselves to conform to others’ expectations, or deciding just how far outside the mainstream we can tolerate living, is tough. We are each susceptible to the fear of being devalued or excluded. Appearing unusual is a source of pride as well as a reason for apology.
All of us are alien to something that could enrich us, too confident in our familiar terrain, unwilling to risk being disconcerted. The best writers expose what it’s like to be that other person who seems so unrelated to us and yet is essentially the same.
Like many Americans, the poet Robert Bly is fascinated by Islamic culture and, in particular, a form of poetry called the ghazal, which originated in what is now Iran. Bly is ever philosophical, and the forms and parallels he chooses are intentional. These are the closing lines of his poem “Stealing Sugar from the Castle”:
“You’re a thief!” the judge said. “Let’s see
Your hands!” I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy.
Poetry, scripture, photography, film… If we can see, then why does compassion make us feel at risk?