When I pick up a book, I feel at peace. The world around me falls to my feet and I am uplifted by stories of characters I may or may not believe.
That’s what I told my partner last night when we spoke about progress, and I recalled my lifelong strategy to develop myself and become better. Better as in more precise and intentional with my actions, to show up genuinely and confidently, to be morally upstanding.
So when I pick up a book, I experience someone else’s journey to becoming better or maybe not. Maybe it’s their journey to survive a tragedy or an epic tale that reinvigorates their life. I am inspired by these stories, by action and reflection. The human spirit thrives here.
At first, it was hard to tear myself away from the screen. Then the moment(s) of truth arrived. Days arrived when my head and eyes would hurt and, like an addict to her fix, I’d take my seat and plug in.
I was becoming a robot, lifelessly consumed and consuming crap from the TV as well as in front of it. Crap because it was about fake lives and did not nurture me. I still have my favorite shows and enjoy bingeing once in a while, but it’s not sustainable. Sitting idly and being fed programming made me crave something new, fresh, and real. The effects became physical, making me lazy, tired, and unfocused.
Watching shows or movies is entertaining, and it’s a creature comfort of the modern professional. I love comedy and satire, so I reached for rowdy and silly comedies to escape my overthinking mind. Unfortunately but expectedly, a lot of the comedies available on streaming platforms perpetuate beliefs that are not mine. It is a world full of mostly white men who are free to be sexist, racist, and domineering in their opinions presented as truths. It was only a matter of time before my TV-watching habits began to inform my own actions and attitudes. I may hold deeply-rooted intentions close to my heart, but if I haphazardly let in influences counter to my moral compass, my intentions are swayed by the environment.
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.Ursula K. Le Guin
When I pick up a book, it’s an escape. An escape similar to what I experienced as a kid. I’d wake up at 5 in the morning and read stories about adventurous girls who solved crimes or, God forbid, rejected suitors, poems about love and depression, and classics about growth as much as madness. I felt at peace immediately, if not within the first or second chapter. When I was not inspired to read, I’d flip the book to a part in the middle or sometimes the end. The excitement on those pages would let me know that there is more to come. No doubt I’ve absorbed this tender belief that good things are coming & perseverance pays off.
Reading is a reminder that our journey matters, more than the end goal & the beginning. Reading – in the midst of my return to myself, to honor my peace and passion – is a Godsend that then reminds me of my power. By reading, we also learn how to analyze and engage with the world around us. It is more interactive and engaging than simply consuming what is presented, packaged & sold.
This past Wednesday was Election Day. I think about how the lack of reading in our society, the lack of commitment to keep learning independently, has stunted our ability to engage in civic society. The modern world is informed by soundbites, memes, and headlines. Thoughtful debates have been replaced by ideological standoffs. It seems we’ve lost sight of the ability and desire to cooperate or even understand one another.
For the last several weeks, I’ve received nonstop mailers of one smear campaign after the next. There is no data on these bulky cards but instead distasteful and desperate slogans to defame and discredit opponents. The zeitgeist seems to be a dangerous playground full of riotous children as adults linger on the pavement shaking their heads.
If we pay attention, we see/hear/read what we need to know. Focusing on logistics or language when it’s a human rights issue demonstrates the lack of care for human life. Focusing on systems when it’s a corruption issue denies the opportunity for personal accountability. Focusing on the opposition without addressing the issue is simply a distraction. When we consume rather than assess, we can end up distracted, rushed, and reaching for the lesser evil.
We have more power than we think.
In fact, we have more power than we’re led to believe.
We have more power than we know what to do with, because what is power really? Is power the ability to control and dominate? Is power the ability to make things happen? Is power money?
Power is a choice, and it can absolutely fit into those definitions above. We choose how to engage with the world. We choose how we fit in and advance our personal and professional interests. We choose how we spend our hard-earned money, and we choose how we spend our time. We choose our friends, work & other influences that will shape our lives (and the world) moving forward.
We choose what we consume, learn & envision. The more we’re exposed to diverse stories across cultures and, yes, ideologies, we inevitably learn to define and navigate our own beliefs. We learn to think for ourselves and not simply be swayed by popular or convenient consensus. We begin to show up thoughtfully and genuinely. And just as we relate to our favorite character in that book, the one who seems worlds away yet shares our deepest desires or insecurities, we just might be able to relate to one another.
Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate–with the best teachers–the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark