Hello all. I’m trying something new here today. A guest post. This is exciting and a little scary at the same time. On the one hand this blog is my baby and I’m scared to let anyone else hold it. On the other hand I feel the need to grow and try new things. So here goes. Hope you enjoy.
Guest Author: Claire Holt
Healing and Self-Identity through Fiction
That beautiful quote by American-Iranian writer and professor Azar Nafisi continues to resonate with me until this day: “What we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.” It’s a succinct articulation which sums up my entire sentiment towards reading fiction which I could never put into words myself, but felt for years. And oddly enough, it is through literary fiction (as well as art, music, and film) where I have experienced the most fulfilling embodiment of revelation in my life. Whether reading a piece of short fiction or throwing myself into a multimedia project of elemental proportions, my sense of the world is encapsulated in this perpetual process of creativity and interpretation. And equally profound, it’s one of the few things which have empowered me to come to terms with my own psychological and metaphysical challenges.
Finding Our Inner Strength through Fiction
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for several years, and my constant mentors have revealed themselves through the heroic and not so heroic endeavors of protagonists and narrators from classical epics, Renaissance poetry, modernist fiction and pretty much everything in between. If the resilient strength which emerges and encompasses an inspirational sense of humanity prevails in even the bleakest of circumstances, then this is enough to restore faith in the greater good, and the readerly response will transcend from the page and into “real life”. When we sympathize with key characters, regardless of what superficial similarities they might or might not appear to share with us, we begin to discover the world through their perceptions and perspectives as well as holding our own. Their story becomes our story; their suffering and triumph becomes our suffering and triumph; and the experience carries with it a poignant kind of reality where we have felt and responded in very real ways.
Within these experiences, we discover a remarkable inner strength. Often, long after we have finished reading, we continue to spin around the ideas of the last great book we read in our heads, contemplating, analyzing, in a way giving life to the work’s ongoing legacy. Some people may argue that dramatic fiction fuels dramatic notions about the world – that we get this sense where good must always prevail and where people who choose the right will eventually be rewarded. Yet here is where fiction becomes the most crucial – we see what should happen, what could happen (whether for better or for worse, like in a critical dystopia) and what does happen, revealed in a light that few of us get to see. Works like P.D. James’ Children of Men highlight a reality which is not so far distanced from our own, while Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns sheds a staggering truth about what already is. But because in the midst of this we see the perseverance of our protagonists prevail no matter what the cost and our hearts echo their resilience, we too learn to be better human beings, even by relating to less than ideal archetypes who are not cardboard cutouts of the perfect hero.
So fiction in one sense teaches us to be good, or at least digs deep inside us to resurrect the urge to live by greater strength and become true to our morality. But it also helps us explore the many complexities and facets of our own personalities with a sometimes brutal, but sometimes gentle honesty. I did a lot of reading during a dark period of my life, where I felt shamed for my own disregard for myself and longing to turn my back on everything. I never touched a self-help book despite appreciating the importance of resources available to help those of my demographic, but buried myself in required reading for my classes and if I had time, my own choice of fiction. I found tremendous consolation in both – not because they distracted me from my own turmoil, but because I found an opportunity to face them in another universe so to speak. I learned that my emotions were complex and tangible, that I was actually quite an average human being, but one who merely felt the intensity of life a little more burningly than others. Even through collaborative efforts such as classroom discussion, I was able to come to terms with not only varying outlooks on life but with my idea of self. The healing process which takes place through reading is a very powerful one and even recognized worldwide.
But then there is also the fiction which directly deals with mental illness itself. I’m not just talking about iconic pop-culture works like Ken Kesey’s brilliant piece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is more about countering institutionalization than mental illness itself – but about all kinds of fiction where a particular character is featured who appears to be facing an internal adversary. Sometimes these characters are almost mis-portrayed, with their unique attributes played up for dramatic effect – while at other times they can produce a heartening effect, whether through courage or empathy or both. Even more bizarrely, I found that in a profoundly grounding sense, the more bizarre the work, the less of a bizarre individual I felt, learning to process my own world with a greater perspective.
Even through the exploration of delusional antagonists, out of the world plot sequences and disturbing events, we can find healing through reading, and help to better outline the contours of our identity and take this with us into the world. After all, literature only seeks to find a way to define what we already know deep inside.