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How do we know who we are?

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How do we know who we are?



By Mark Azzara

Dear Friend,

I recently read an interesting online magazine article about the late Gabrielle Roy, perhaps Canada’s greatest fiction writer ever, written by well-known author Margaret Atwood. The article has inspired me to read a book by Roy that’s been on my shelf for years and to buy another of her novels.

But I have a problem with the way the article ended. Atwood quoted Roy as saying, “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” And then Atwood provided an equally smug answer, “No, we could not.” I’ll leave you to read the justification for that remark in the article’s last paragraph.

I like to write and I’m trying to put the finishing touches on a piece of fiction that’s been “in process” for years, so I can appreciate what it’s like not only to write but also to reveal who we are to others via fiction. So it sounds like I’m agreeing with Roy and Atwood.

But the phrase “in the slightest” means that we cannot know each other at all without the arts. That’s absurd. If Roy and Atwood are correct then those who live in societies that have little in the way of drama, literature, and song lyrics are condemned to remain ignorant.

On the other hand, despite the arts, we in the developed world still don’t know one another, or even ourselves, very well. That’s why psychotherapy is booming and nations are at war. We live in a “developed” world that remains intellectually and emotionally segregated on the basis of politics, culture, religion, age, economic status, race, gender and more.

A man doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman, someone young doesn’t know what it’s like to be old, and someone white doesn’t know what it’s like to be black or Hispanic. Drama, literature and lyrical music can help us learn something in that regard, but they can actually inhibit action if consumers believe that knowing about others is the same as knowing them.

I have learned more about humanity – much more than I ever imagined I would – by volunteering a few days a month at a soup kitchen than I’ve learned through all the books I’ve ever read (except for the Bible), the songs I’ve heard, or the movies I’ve seen. If you really want to learn about humanity, join me or find some agency that needs your help and sign up.

But God has brought me beyond merely knowing “about” people. He has unlocked my heart to the reality of suffering and the reality of who those other people are. In doing so, I have come to know them; not merely about them, which is something I will never do merely by reading a book.

As a result of knowing our guests I begin to go deeper and love them as God loves, which is the only way to alleviate their deepest suffering. And no one has ever come to love another human being via a book or a play.

In short, the arts aren’t a substitute for relationships. They teach us about people. But the only way to actually “know” people “in the slightest” is to enter into relationship with them, including their suffering, so that we appreciate them and they no longer feel alone.

Reading about suffering or seeing a performance about it might soften your heart, but your heart must be open to it. Only God has the key that can unlock our hearts, and we must ask him to do so.

All God’s blessings – Mark


Mark Azzara

About Mark Azzara

Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and a non-denominational prayer community and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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