This past week I finished reading Margaret Atwood's feminine dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. The entire time I read it I couldn't decide whether I liked it or not. The book left a lot of questions unanswered. There was no clear glimpse into the power structure, the leaders, the reasoning. The scope was so narrow, like looking at the world through a keyhole. I was left with what I saw as less than half the story. How can we understand the message, the warning, if we can't see how it all began or how it all works? Maybe it wasn't good?
But I know that sometimes when we don't like a piece of art or writing, it's because we can't see what the work is trying to tell us because we are only looking at what we wanted it to be. I wanted this book to be like other dystopian novels, and it wasn't, and I was judging it for that.
So, immediately after finishing, I felt the need to revisit an old favorite, 1984 by George Orwell. A dystopian classic that feels perpetually relevant, especially now. Sigh. It as in reading this book that I realized the genius of The Handmaid's Tale. In 1984 I heard the story from a white male living in a somewhat privileged position. I heard his thoughts on the world, and its problems and where the suffering and the solutions lie. I also heard his views on women and the poor and some of it I didn't like this time around.
Every book changes you, you know, and Margaret Atwood showed me that the stories we should be listening to are the ones that may not tell us the whole story but will give us the depth of the feeling, the suffering, that we need to hear. Hearing the story from a white man's perspective comes with built-in privilege. We will hear the whole thing, but we won't know how bad it is. A story about white women may give less scope, but it will have more feeling. Even in The Handmaid's Tale, I wonder what stories we aren't hearing. The voices of people of color are missing. The voices of the LGBTQ+ community are only touched on. The voices of the poor are missing too. And there is nothing from countries who look to America for example and protection.
There may be even more feeling in those stories, and theirs are the ones I think of now.
The Handmaid's Tale changed me. Now when I think back over stories I've enjoyed, I wonder what voices were missing. I want to reread books, rewatch movies, and I look for the story not being told. I want to listen to the news and read blogs and opinion pieces, and I ask "who isn't being heard?" I wonder who, right now, suffering silently?
What story needs to be told to get people to understand the human element to all of this?
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
In the real world, those who are oppressed don't know the whole story. They only know they are hated, they are used, they are forgotten, and then, they are killed. They don't always know why or how it comes to be this way or continue to be this way. And those stories are where the warnings are.
We don't need an instruction manual for how to ruin the world; we have plenty of those. We need to understand what our actions mean. What does it mean when you use people for your own ends? What does it mean when you decide there ought to be a structure, a ladder, of some people above others, for "the greater good"? What does it mean to shrug your shoulders and tell yourself "that's life," "that's just how it goes," "that's the way the world works"? Who is hurt and what does that hurt feel like?
Look for where the suffering is. Look for the people who we take from. Look for the people who we disregard. The people we say aren't our problem. People who are affected by what we do, but who are easier not to see. Look for people trying to be heard, people who make you uncomfortable, people who no one is listening to or taking seriously. The real story, the real crime, injustice, and cruelty of it all will be found in the places no one can easily speak from. That is where we will find the worst of ourselves and the work that will need to be done.
“I have learned now that while those who speak about one's miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.”
― C.S. Lewis
It's funny how no dystopian story feels that far fetched. Each one feels on the verge of becoming a reality. It's funny how the worst stories about us are the most plausible and easiest to believe. I think most are even over-thought. It will ever take so much effort or coordination to control the masses. It will take a shockingly, frighteningly, little amount of work. The government need barely get their hands dirty; we do it to ourselves willingly, eagerly. Hell, we do it now.
The good news is, it will take very little to incite us to fight back too. We don't live well under such control. We hate rules, even the ones we know are best for us. We break them; we fail, we never account for the strength of our own darkness and dirty desires. We believe in the ideal. We work toward it always and enforce it everywhere all the while hating it and defying it in secret. We can never be perfect, not even on our own terms.
We are never all one or the other, and so, the best and the worst can be aroused in each of us at any time. Sadly, only temporarily. We always have to be looking to awaken the humanity in ourselves, over and over again. Read more from people who are outside of your bubble. Outside of your race, your gender, your economic status, and your geographical location, in the real world and through fiction.
You will learn more about the kind of person you want to be when you let yourself step into the suffering of people you cannot understand.
“You do have a story inside you; it lies articulate and waiting to be written — behind your silence and your suffering.”
― Anne Rice
P.S. I hope this makes sense. I'm having trouble collecting my thoughts today. :/
“Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must.”
— Michel de Montaigne // Johann Wolfgang von Goethe