Why We Need Difficult Stories

Trigger Warning*: Self-harm, suicide, violence

Life was scary; it was unknowable. Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them. They all – Malcolm with his houses, Willem with his girlfriends, JB with his paints, he with his razors – sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days.

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

Some stories read to me like a serenade – a comforting narrative that pulls me in and envelops me like a warm blanket. Some stories feel more like a classroom film showing with the lights out; I can feel my eyes widen in wonder as I take in a compelling plot and a treasure trove of information that will later prove useful.

But some stories hit me like a shock, like a surge of pain you don’t expect as you lay vulnerable on a hospital bed. This is what it felt like reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Photo by Jan Versweyveld from a rehearsal of the stage adaptation of “A Little Life” in Amsterdam directed by Ivo Van Hove (from an article in The New York Times)

A Large Life

I knew very little about the book when I bought it – only that it came highly-recommended by critics and readers. As I started reading page after page and getting sucked into the intricate story of four friends navigating devastating realities – deep trauma, drug addiction, disability, failure, sexual violence, self-harm, suicide, death – I found myself dealing with complex emotions as well.

There were times I sobbed at phrases and paragraphs that painted so much pain – and yet so much of the resilience and strength of human beings. There were times I had to put the book down to pause – to let difficult images pass over me and to breathe. There were times I felt euphoric: after so much pain and heartbreak, there are beautiful moments in those passages that feel like rays of saving light after a long storm.

It was a difficult story of lives that were anything but little, and it changed me forever. It was not just the painful realities unfamiliar to me that demanded my attention; it was their depiction in frightening, raw details that stopped me in my tracks, as if to say: “Hey, these things are happening to real people – those close to you, maybe some you meet day by day. This is what they go through. This is what you could go through. Listen up. Understand this. Remember this.”

I know this is fiction, and these people are made-up. But I felt deeply for these characters, and by feeling those feelings, I’ve become more aware. And by becoming more aware, I know now that I can do more. It’s a call to recognize more of the humanity in others; to see their pain; to hold their hand; to withhold judgment; to exercise empathy. It’s a call to try harder.

The Medium of Difficult Stories

Our world today has a complicated relationship with difficult stories. On one extreme, we avoid difficult stories and prefer shallow entertainment conveyed via 10-second dance craze videos or filtered/manicured photos from life’s highlight reel. On another extreme, we’ve sensationalized stories of trauma, violence, and terror that they often get twisted into black-and-white, good-vs-evil dichotomies and no longer carry the human-ness that draws out our more vulnerable selves. They’ve become tabloid headlines.

But, in my own experience, difficult stories teach us better when they’re presented with a complexity that leaves us with more questions than answers.

I remember watching The Schindler’s List and forever retaining images of the Holocaust that pulled me into learning more about this difficult period in time when authority prevailed over integrity, when the banality of evil conquered our better angels, when successful propaganda and miseducation spiralled up into a crescendo of violent discrimination and genocide.

When I read Van Gogh’s life story, I had to read it in bursts because it felt difficult taking the painter’s tortured narrative all at once. But it was well worth it: I came out with a better understanding of the ways our mental states can at times be influenced by forces of religion, family, and societal pressure, while also informing our manifestations in art, desire, love.

In the Philippines, classics like Oro, Plata, Mata and more recent films like Heneral Luna, Respeto, Liway, and many others deal with tough subjects like violence, crime, and imprisonment but nevertheless reveal fabrics of our society and open our eyes – with the hopes of igniting sparks of action.

Scene from “Oro, Plata, Mata”. Many of these achingly stunning films can be viewed online now, such as on Netflix

The Need for Discomfort

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

John F. Kennedy

We need to read, listen to, and tell difficult stories because we need discomfort to grow.

With algorithms writing the rules in our social media age, we’re often limited to comfortable bubbles in which we agree with the people around us; in which we are familiar with the stories they tell; and in which we shy away from pieces of content that go against our perceptions and biases. But though we feel safe in these digital bubbles, it doesn’t necessarily make the real world a safer place.

By exposing ourselves to stories and content that shock us, anger us, make us cry, and make us ask questions, we are letting in unfamiliar narratives and thoughts that can help us better understand a wider range of people in a wider range of circumstances. In the process, we can also better understand ourselves, especially the parts of us that are often hidden from view.

In this regard, the difficult story becomes a mechanism for feeling. The kind of feeling that could lead to understanding. The kind of feeling that could lead to never forgetting. The kind of feeling that could lead to protecting those who have gone through such difficult moments. The kind of feeling that could lead to reflecting, empathizing, transforming.

Difficult stories wrench open our humanity. We are more vulnerable, yes, but we become better people too.

*Note: There is an interesting discourse in science on whether using trigger warnings are helpful or not. I personally believe they are helpful in preparing us – especially at our most vulnerable – for difficult subject matter but they should not (hopefully) scare us away from dealing with the complexities and challenges of the text before us. Read about the discourse here.

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