Gabby, Obama, L.K. and MLK
January 17th, 2011
It’s been more than a week since the shootings in Tucson that killed six people, and miraculously didn’t kill Gabrielle Giffords.
It’s been been five days since author L.K. Madigan announced some hard news on her blog: She has stage IV pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to her liver. In her post, L.K. doesn’t mince words. In her typically brave, and funny, and true words, she seemed like she was saying her goodbye.
It has been five days since Obama spoke in Tucson, giving a speech, not just about the victims of the shooting, not just about civility or lack thereof in our culture, but about the overarching need for greater empathy, a greater sense of humility and humanity to guide us in all matters.
It has been 82 years since the Reverend Martin Luther King was born, almost 43 years since he was shot. Today we celebrate him.
Somehow, these disparate events have been knocking around in my brain for the past few days. I wish I could say that the shootings are occupying the most brain space, but maybe it’s because we’ve lived through them so many times before that I’ve become hardened to such things. They are so uniquely American. They happen. We don’t even discuss, much less do anything about the holes in our mental health system or gun control. And I get that for many people the Second Amendment is as sacrosanct as the First Amendment is to me so by “discussing” I’m not talking banning, but when people sigh at school shootings or rampages and simply go “not again!” it’s like, really people, something is off.
But, I digress. Because really, the thing that I’ve been thinking about is Obama’s speech. And Lisa’s news.
Two admissions or clarifications. One, I have been kind of mad at Obama. Not in the angry left kind of way. Just in the I-thought-you’d-be-a-better-politician kind of way. Where’s the inspiration to go with the policy? As with all matters, I look to Jon Stewart to explain how I feel. “He ran as a visionary; he leads as a functionary.” Maybe this is a necessity of the time but I feel, felt, let down. That speech lifted me up a good deal. More on that in a moment.
Second, I don’t know Lisa very well at all—L.K. is her nom de plume, I think devised so boys buy her books (boys, are you so skittish?). I admire her work. She came to one of my readings. We have exchanged emails and blog comments. I don’t pretend to know much about her. But her news saddened me very much.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Obama said: “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Expand our moral imaginations. Sharpen our instincts for empathy. Those lines resonated deeply. Maybe because that is what so many of us writers try to do. Not to get all highfalutin on you, but that is certainly what Lisa Madigan did in Flash/Burnout, her debut, award-winning novel that bursts at the spine with empathy for her characters, flaws and all. What is a writer like that doing if not expanding her, and her readers’, moral imaginations? Sharpening their instincts for empathy? And it’s not lost on me that I’m writing this on a day when we honor MLK, whose legacy for expanding our moral imagination and instincts for empathy lives on.
Of all the lines in the speech, this one blew my mind, simply because in this era of gimme, gimme, achievement, earn-earn, it was almost subversive to hear a president say it. “We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved…”
Not how well we are loved, but how well we have loved. How much love we have put out there. How much love we have given. It has been one of the lessons of my life—one I don’t always put into practice but I try— to realize that love is not always reciprocal but it is always reciprocated. You put it out there; you get it back, but not always from the person you gave it to.
There are many different cups into which to pour your love. Your friends, your family, your readers, the world via you characters, the random people you meet each day to whom you are kind. So many cups. So, fill ’em up. As much as you can. And drink it in. All of it.