Every once in a while, someone who’s new to this column will ask me what it’s about. My usual response is “It’s about 600 words, give or take.”
OK, it’s a wiseguy answer. But not a wrong one. Over the years, this column has dealt with puns and politics, sports and sorrow, news of the weird and news from home. Many of the most popular have been about family – my wife Heather, our disabled ward Missy, our cousins and nieces and nephews and pets.
If there’s been one consistent theme, though – aside from my beating my forehead against the monitor until the words come pouring out – it’s that this column is about all of you.
Allow me to explain.
Long ago, I dwelt in a fabled land known as southwest Kansas, where the distances are vast and the people few. Within this land, there dwelt a sage known as Ava Betz, copy editor for The Garden City Telegram. And after I wrote my first weekly column ever as a newspaper reporter – a light piece on the beauty of words – it was Ava who came up to me to compliment me and pass on a bit of advice.
“You can write anything you want,” she told me, “but no navel gazing. Got it?”
“Got it.” And I did.
Writers spend a lot of time in their own head. It can be very tempting to not come out again – to cut out the rest of the world and make it all about ME, spending paragraph after paragraph on the beauty of your own belly button lint (figuratively speaking) without a thought to why anyone else in the world should care about your deathless prose.
But other people matter.
And “why should anyone care?” is the most vital question any writer can ask.
Let me revise that. It’s the most vital question any human being can ask.
Writers need readers. And writers who never give a moment’s thought to the readers’ world haven’t created a story. At best, they’ve created a still life, objects without motion, references without resonance. At worst, they’re posing in a mirror.
People need people. And people who never give a moment’s though to the other lives around them pass through an empty world – or worse, create one. Neighbors without empathy are just folks who happen to live nearby. Leadership without reflection is just preening, or maybe even bullying. Failing to recognize someone else’s pain is to not truly understand your own.
That’s one of the secrets that shouldn’t be so secret. We learn ourselves better when we see others more clearly. When we reach out, something also reaches in.
And together, we create a story worth telling.
It sounds easy. It isn’t. It means taking time to consider other perspectives and other hearts, and maybe having your own broken a few times. C.S. Lewis once wrote that “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” and when you try to find the things that tie your soul to another’s, you are committing an act of love. Leaving yourself vulnerable.
But you’re also making the world just a little closer. And yourself a little more alive.
In acting, a performer is sometimes derided as “only playing himself.” Actors know the truth – that every actor plays themselves, but the most limited ones don’t have enough self to play. You stretch yourself by breaking out of familiar patterns and experiencing those around you. By caring.
This is a space where we come to care. This column. This community. This world.
That’s what it’s about.
And if it’s also about 600 words – well, that’s a bonus.
You bet your belly button.