When words are not enough

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 4:21pm

I wanted this article to be about the power of books to heal. I wanted to talk decisively about how novels, poems and essays can direct collective and personal anger, supply comfort and provide an instructive array of resonant experiences. In the past three weeks, though, the usually profound and reliable competence of words has felt radically insufficient.

I’ve always relied on other people’s writing to navigate my own emotions, and so of course I’ve looked to books to help me understand the struggle between hope and disillusionment that has been sweeping the country since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14th. I have found no books that even come close to crafting some sort of framework for my grief, no poems that contain an alchemical recipe to turn my despair into power. The only thing I know for sure is this: Young people should not be dying in their classrooms because politicians refuse to pass sensible gun control laws. Last week, I reread “Love in a Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez.

“She was lost in her longing to understand,” Marquez writes. I think I, too, am lost in my longing to understand.

Like so many students I know, I am scared. The Parkland shooting seems like it was both yesterday and a lifetime ago. There is a constant barrage of new details about the events of that day and the days that followed, horrifying aftershocks whose impacts are lessened not because some suffering is any less worthy of empathy, but because my ability to process my own and others’ grief is diminished from constant emotional exertion.

I read a story last week about a woman whose son survived the Parkland massacre and whose daughter survived the 2006 Platte Canyon High School shooting. That such tragedy — and also luck, if it can even be called that — should strike twice in the same family is unimaginable. I want a book that will tell me what to do with the anger and frustration I have from reading stories like the Randolph family’s. What does it mean when even the insights of my favorite authors feel insufficient?

There are not any books that could possibly tell me exactly how to tackle everything that needs to change in America, nor even any about how to address the specific yet incredibly intersectional injustice of gun violence. I was looking for comprehensive guides; I will never find that. Instead, I think the best I can hope for is clarity through description, reflections not of my grief but rather of my quest to understand why I can’t find what I need. “I need a book about how I’m supposed to live now,” writes Paulo Bacigalupi in “The Water Knife.” That’s what I was looking for: A roadmap of uncharted territory, a chronicle of this bizarre place we have found ourselves. Instead I’ll have to make it up as I go along, as we all do.

What I’ve come understand is this: When words are not enough, that is exactly when we need them most. Even when they fall short, they still try — and so we try, too. To give up on language, to allow sorrow to rob poetry of its beauty, or even to rely solely on stories and forget to act: This would be to let evil win. I look to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” for the best meditations on the Sisyphean task of reckoning with violence.

“You feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun,” O’Brien says, “and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.”

“The oceans surge, but the boat / is up on blocks. / There’s no America to sail to / anymore.” — Amit Majmudar

“One says slow, the other stop. / Joy and sorrow always run like parallel lines.” — Didi Jackson

“When I was silenced / when did it first seem pointless to describe that sound.” — Louise Glück

“Our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone.” — Kathryn Schulz

“And a terrible new ache / rolled over in my chest, / like in a room where the drapes / have been swept back.” — Tracy K. Smith

We could never fix this country with books alone. Instead, we must harness that aching love for the world as we wish it was. We must stand witness to the gut-wrenching disregard for the well-being of those among us who are most vulnerable. We must fight with the perspicacity bestowed upon us by the best writers, marching forward into the future with a hope that is as specific and inexhaustible as memory.