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Psalmtube: Compassionate Imagination

By Jeremy Sierra

Reading is a religious activity.

Put another way, if religion is composed of everything we create that brings us closer to one another and the truth and to God—music, for example, and liturgy, theology, and prayer books—then opening a great book is akin to a religious experience. The best books, the Bible included, give us a glimpse into other lives, a God’s-eye vision of reality.

George Saunders’ story collection, Tenth of December, is one such book. It is empathy inducing, possibly transcendent, in the sense that it compels the reader to transcend his or her own experiences.

Like the Bible, you could also argue that Saunders’ book is all about salvation. Time and time again he takes his characters to the brink of tragedy only to bring them back again, to redeem them either by their actions or simply by showing them to be deeper, more broken, and more humane than they might appear at first glance.

In “Victory Lap,” two teenagers save each other, quite literally. Later, a convicted murderer sacrifices himself rather than harm another inmate. In the title story an awkward boy saves an old man from committing suicide, and the old man saves the boy from drowning in a frozen lake.

In the final few pages of the book, Saunders writes: “They were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing has just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing.”

This expansive compassion for his characters strikes me as religious in nature, grounded in unconditional love.

Sometimes, of course, the characters fail to recognize each other as complicated people in difficult circumstances, situations made all the more devastating because Saunders makes us empathize with them—the poor woman who ties up her mentally ill child so he doesn’t hurt himself, the criminal, the somewhat slimy salesman, and the man who participates in an awful and surreal practice that involves using living people from the developing world as lawn ornaments (a story which, according to an interview, originated in a dream).

Saunders knows the pitfalls and foibles of human nature, but he also knows that love can, on occasion, shine through them.

You may have read Saunders’ graduation speech that circulated earlier this year. He calls on the students at Syracuse University to be kind. It draws on the same far-reaching empathy and understanding as his fiction.

“There’s a confusion in each of us,” Saunders says, “a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf—seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.”

So his advice is this: “Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will—is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

You could call that consciousness or you could call it compassion, and compassion is the place where the generous vision of fiction and unconditional religious love intersect. This kind of compassionate imagination can help us see humanity at its most lost, broken, even monstrous, and still understand that there is a hidden life and history behind every human being we encounter. Maybe then we can, in Saunders’ words, “err in the direction of kindness.”

Jeremy Sierra is Managing Editor of Trinity News.

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