Why Art is So Important During Turbulent Times
We live in turbulent times. Each day it seems we wake up to more bad news or troublesome tweets from our President. These are angry times as well — times when families are riven by political tension, when it feels like the regular global order is fractured beyond repair.
I recently got into a yelling fight with my mother because I thought she was being too “privileged” by turning off the TV and not taking in the news. And she told me that she was sinking into a legitimate depression because of what she heard or read there.
These are scary times. They're so fraught that it feels almost obscene to even think about thinking about something unrelated to the travesties in our world. Look outside America and find no peace — Europe is splintering, Syria is burning, Russia is rising and so is the temperature...there's just so much going on that demands attention, how can I focus on anything that is not life-or-death?
The answer is simpler than I expected: sometimes, distraction is life-or-death. Sometimes, we need a break. I don’t believe it’s not important to activate — to protest, to call your senators, to volunteer your time, to know what’s going on — but I’m learning that sometimes we need unadulterated, simple beauty in our lives.
So not every story or book needs to be politically laden in order to be important. I recently saw a show that was just an hour and a half of athletic people doing acrobatics, which instilled me with childlike wonder. And as I walked out of the theater, I felt like I was dancing on a cloud.
We need more of that in these turbulent times. We need books that allow us to escape into a new world, that let us be free and unfettered, however briefly. Art is a form of escapism, which in a moderate amount is one of the healthiest things we can have.
Books that create a new world for us to live in are so, so important. It’s not frivolous to spend time reading a book without a “deeper” meaning. Last October, in the midst of a very dark depressive period, I read The Summer I Turned Pretty and its sequels by Jenny Han. And it was like drinking ice-cold, sweetened tea on a hot South Carolina afternoon. It refreshed me. It made me feel something, something sweet and exquisite, when I felt like I was living in darkness.
Books can do that; they can help us escape our sorrows and darkness.
And books teach us to have empathy and compassion, too. I consider myself an empathetic person. I’m a sympathy-crier, someone who will see your tears and immediately feel an echo of whatever emotion you’re feeling, and it will move me to tears.
I’m also someone who grew up reading voraciously. I devoured hundreds of books a year — one year, I wrote down every title I read, up to the 300th. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have an overabundance of empathy to go with my overabundance of book-nerdiness.
Because of the beauty of books, a beauty that is shadowed but not fully replicated in other storytelling art forms, we, the readers, are able and in fact compelled to place ourselves in the characters’ shoes. In order to have a full and vivid reading experience, we need to experience the characters’ experiences, think in their voices, feel what they feel.
While reading a book, you have to put your imagination into overdrive. You imagine faces, clothes, settings. You imagine feelings: anger, love, despair. You become someone else. You live a thousand, a million different lives. Books are the things that take us from an ethnocentric to a global mindset.
Books encourage us to understand others. I read The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and that book put me squarely in the shoes of people I have little in common with. It forced me to vicariously experience the fear of being an undocumented immigrant facing deportation, as well as the awkwardness of being a second-generation immigrant reconciling two cultures.
To really appreciate the book, I had to go outside of myself and imagine a different reality. I had to change some preconceived notions about undocumented immigrants, and I felt my heart break for something that will never happen to me. I felt, truly, the despair and pain of facing a forced march away from your home. And I understood people so much better.
It taught me compassion. So now I know I will fight for immigrants, undocumented or otherwise. They’ve been humanized for me. A book did that. A collection of pages and words rendered a whole class of people more real to me.
And finally, books broaden our horizons. They show us how big the world is. It’s easy to be consumed by politics in America these days and forget everything else, forget that there are other problems to be solved. I read (and sobbed through) When We Collided by Emery Lord, a book about mental illness. It reminded me that it’s okay to think about something other than what’s happening in the world at large.
It’s okay to have your own issues, unconnected as they may be. It’s okay to feel passionate about who’s going to be on Trump’s cabinet, to feel passionate about helping Syrian refugees, and to feel passionate about erasing mental health stigmas. Those are all things I care about, and they can co-exist in my mind and heart.
So artists, this is your time. Do not be afraid to create, to promote, to help us escape, emote, evaluate our circumstances. And writers especially — do your good work. Write your politically motivated thriller-fantasy, your novel about chronic pain, your historical fiction reminding us of the Civil War, your happy escapist romance. They’re all important, in equal yet different ways.
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