I don’t know if you guys read Brain Pickings but you should check it out, cause it’s awesome and full of a lot of food for thought.
I was skimming back posts the other day and there was an article talking about David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon University (the whole text of which has been transcribed and which exists as audio files all over the internet which I will link to when I’m writing on a computer rather than on my phone). There were a collection of quotes from the speech, which covered a lot of ground and discussed, among other things, the nature of art and writing, and the general solipsism inherent in every persons life. And the loneliness that can come with that.
Solipsism is, to a degree, something common to all people. You can view your life through the lens of your own experience. You can only know as much about a given situation as your own senses reveal to you. You are the center of your universe, not through a kind of deluded narcissism but because that’s all you really can be. You are the only person you are capable of ever completely knowing and you are the only one who is living and can live your life. And that can be terribly lonely. I’m not stating any of this as eloquently as David Foster Wallace did, but hopefully the point comes across.
Something I’ve always felt but couldn’t really articulate until I was reading that article, and the commencement address itself, was that the power of art and particularly of stories lays in its ability to make people feel less alone. Not just to show people that they are understood but through presenting people with an opportunity to deeply understand and connect with someone else, even if that someone else is fictional. The fact that we have the ability to empathize deeply with another can be vastly reassuring.
As someone who loves to read and write, who studied literature in school and who is studying publishing now, I’ve often felt a need to defend literature, why the love and the teaching of it should be protected and encouraged. I think that stories are part of what makes us human – both that we tell them and that we are told them. I think that empathy is one of the things that stories have the power to give us, the ability to feel a deep sense of connection to another person, to more than sympathize with them but to understand them so intensely that we feel what they feel. Good stories, good writing, have the power to do this. And I don’t think that’s something that people are ever going to stop needing.
Because I think everyone has felt alone at some point in their life, but stories give us a way to be alone together.