The Framing of Tragedy

The numbers keep going up. At this point, it’s 59 people killed, and over 500 injured after another American mass shooting

When I was a journalism student, I learned about the power of framing a story. The best way to understand it is to think of taking a picture — there is only so much that can be captured by the lens. The frame is how much you zoom in or out, and what part of any given view you focus on. You can achieve the same effect with the words you use to describe an event.

Words matter. Describe a mass shooter as a terrorist, and one kind of narrative is created. Describe a mass shooter as a “lone wolf” and another kind of narrative is created. Is this a story about the enemies of America, or about the way a single, misunderstood and troubled man chose to act out? 

In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in American history, different groups of people scrambled for a framing device for the story. In the immediate aftermath, before anything was known about the man who shot into a crowd of concert goers on the Las Vegas strip with high-powered automatic assault rifles, a group of alt-right followers were busy spreading fake news that the shooter was an anti-Trump democrat. Search engine algorithms picked up the story, and, as the saying goes, the lie got half-way around the world before the truth got its pants on. For those alt-right folks and the people who reposted them, this was a narrative that at least, to them, made sense.

As Monica Hesse writes in the Washington Post, every tragedy inevitably becomes a political tool, and no one is exempt from using it as thus: 

What “Don’t politicize this” often means is, Don’t politicize this if the shooter belongs to meAs personal details about the gunman begin to come out — old voting records, Facebook rants — “Don’t politicize this” is the placeholder statement we use while figuring out exactly which political knives need to be sharpened.

She goes on to describe the potential narratives that could come out and how different groups might respond to them. Facts, as they become available, help shape the narrative and frame the picture, but as always, how those facts are seen and used will vary dramatically from group to group: Hesse writes, “We waited, because knowing who [the shooter] was would cue Americans how to respond.”

Human beings are hard-wired to make tragedy make sense. The idea that a man would take 23 weapons into a hotel, break open the window, and open fire on a crowd, doesn’t make sense unless we name the hate we assume he must have felt. In the aftermath of horrible events like this, people look to blame something they feel safe blaming. People don’t actually want to change their world view after tragedy. Instead, they reframe the event so that it matches the views they already hold. 

There is a social work joke that I go back to on a regular basis: “how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

As much as I’d like to think that yet another record-breaking mass shooting will change hearts and minds, I know that those hearts and minds have to want to be changed in order for these new facts to be seen in a new way. 

Things are not okay. They have not been okay. They will not be okay for likely a very long time. And no amount of thoughts and prayers will make them okay. There is no magic framing device that can erase the bullets that went into bodies, and the blood and tears that followed. People need to be willing to let those pictures change them in order for them to be willing to do something to prevent another mass shooting from happening.

Far too many people will zoom out, shift the frame, adjust the focus, and see what they want to see. They will chose a false narrative over a view-altering truth. They will insist that nothing has to change, that nothing can be changed. But the truth is that we have a mass shooting epidemic in America, and there is a solution to it (change gun laws, reevaluate safety standards, increase access to mental health care, and have a national conversation about how mass shootings could be avoided in the future)– if people are willing to see it.  

As satire site The Onion writes: “At press time, Americans nationwide agreed that years of taking no measures whatsoever to prevent mass shootings may finally be paying off.” 

We can keep our heads in the sand, and hope that somehow by doing nothing bullets will stop flying, and bodies will stop falling. Or we can look beyond the frame and see what is actually contributing to mass shootings — and finally, collectively, work to end them. 

Running on Empty

I have been trying to write this blog for several hours now. I wanted to write something about Charlottesville, VA, and about white nationalism (how it came to be, and why we can’t just abide it). I wanted to write about meeting anger with compassion, and the struggle to do that.

I also really want to write about Game of Thrones, because the last two episodes have been amazing, and it’s one of my favorite shows (in part because I also write fantasy). And it would be easier to write about that than pretty much anything else I could come up with.

And I also want to write about my struggle at work with clients who have little to no tolerance for the fallibility of others (including their therapist) and how hard that is to hold, again, with compassion.

But I just feel so bleh about it all. I am trying to hold on to the idea that what I write matters, both in this blog and in my fiction. I have been struggling to hold on to the idea that art matters, that novels matter, when I feel like I should be out marching instead of writing, or calling more senators and house representatives.

I am struggling to have enough energy to balance out all the things I want in my personal life with the national tragedy that is all around us. I am really struggling with dealing with the fact that so many people (again, including clients) don’t believe there is a national tragedy or fear the rise of white nationalism (and literal Nazis!) in our country.

I know that art matters. I know that it doesn’t have to be high and mighty, capital A Art to matter either. I know that distraction is not a bad thing when there is so much bad news happening all the time. And I know that for myself, I do best when I engage actively in creativity on a consistent basis.

And I also know that I am not the only one struggling right now, so I’m just going to put this here:

I’m going to go practice some art — even if I do it badly — so that I can refill my compassion well. It’s been on empty for a while.

Heroes Vs Villains

There is a saying that no villain really knows that they are a villain. We are all heroes in our own minds. But in fiction, it is also often true that heroes don’t know they are heroes. They resist the title. They push back against the events that would take them to heroic destiny. The good ones, the ones we relate to most, never really feel heroic so much as overwhelmed by the circumstances they face.

I have broken the main rule of the Internet: never read the comments. In reading the comments I find, over and over again, people so opposed to each other, they resort to insults, each side assuming the other is the biased one, the stupid one, the one who refuses to get it (or is incapable of getting it). Each side has painted theirs as the one full of heroes, the other the one full of villains.

How can this be?

It is enough to give me pause and wonder how I see myself, how I live my life, even how I write my characters. How have I decided what is heroic and what is villainous? What criteria was I using and why was I so sure I could tell the one from the other?

Maybe it was just circumstance — the heroes had the most bad things happening to them. Maybe it was just perspective. The heroes are the ones that get the most time spent on their thoughts, feelings, and motives. Heroes are the ones whose pain audiences are supposed to relate to, their reactions more justified, their mistakes made smaller with familiarity. They are allowed remorse, guilt, shame, and insecurity. They are the ones fighting for hope.

Or maybe it’s just about likability. Heroes are the ones we like — they have the charm, the talent, the special magical ability to make audiences want to find out more.

If I can’t say for sure which characters I have created are truly heroic, how can I say which people in life are truly villainous? Particularly when people on both sides are so determined that theirs is the side to be on?

After much thought and consideration, I finally came up with the only definition (and a working one at that) which could even start to help me make sense of the world: heroes are the ones that are willing to admit they are wrong, and they are the ones most likely to change and grow over time. Heroes are the ones looking to be redeemed, in whatever way they feel they need to be. Villains are the ones who aggressively refuse to change.

It’s not a perfect definition, and the distinction between heroes and villains, as much as there is one, is, I’m sure, much more nuanced than can be contained in one simple line (or three). But I need some measure, some way to determine if I actually really am on the right side, something that isn’t an appeal to authority or tradition. I need to know that flawed people can be heroic, and that not all villains have to stay that way.

Because the truth is that things in the world often feel very overwhelming. Life often feels full of obstacles I feel less than equipped to overcome. And I don’t feel like a hero. Yet I also know my thoughts and views have easily painted as me someone else’s villain. It gets murky, here the middle, in the real world, away from fiction (and non-fiction) organizing events to make one side seem better than the other. It’s hard to know what side I stand on, and I suppose throughout my life I will flit from the heroic to the villainous and back again, depending on circumstance, perspective, and context. Just because I think I’m right doesn’t necessarily mean that I am.

I’m prepared to be wrong though. And I think that is a good sign that maybe, just maybe, I lean toward the heroic. At least, that’s what I hope.

Radical Self-Love and Pride

I first became an activist in 2008, when, on the night of Barack Obama’s historic win of the presidential election, Proposition 8 passed in California, my home state, voters declaring that same-sex couples shouldn’t have the right to marry. I happened to be watching the results with a good friend and her girlfriend, on the day of my friend’s birthday. Her tears moved me to action, and when she looked for ways to get involved and protest Prop 8, I went with her.

That was also the first year I went to the Pride Parade in Los Angeles. It was the first time I became fully aware of the multitude of rights LGBTQ folks were being denied because of the bigotry of others. And it was the first time I understood what an ally was — and started the long process of learning to be one while confronting my own privilege.

A lot has changed for me since 2008, including earning a masters degree in social work, and working in the field for almost five years post-graduation. My understanding of privilege and being an ally has continued to evolve. It has not been an easy process, and in fact, I often find myself frustrated both with the multitude of battles for equality that still need to be fought, and the various ways I have, both specifically and generically as a white woman, been called out. I am reminded daily that I need to  be called out in order to grow — and that it is up to me to work through my frustration in order to be an effective ally.

June is Pride month in many places across the US, including NY (where I am now). It has also been a very challenging month. It was the one-month anniversary of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It had the devastating results of the case against the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile (acquittal). It was yet another month full of terrorist attacks against Muslims, both here in the US and abroad. My social media feeds continue to be filled with heartbreaking story after story. Most of us are still reeling from the reality of living in a post-Trump world, and all the hatred that has emerged with it.

I am back to wondering what it is to be an ally, and what it means to make space for pride in my life, not just as someone who feels more queer than straight (though isn’t sure how to identify as queer without a strict label to go with it), but as someone who constantly spends time with others who take pride in the very identities that they are prosecuted and attacked for. Pride is a radical act of defiance in the face of oppression. Pride is about daring to celebrate, even in the midst of all the reasons to mourn. Pride is about radical self-love, and radically loving others.

So I am sharing with folks several websites that have become my go-to spaces for helping me grow as an ally, and celebrate the concept of radical love and pride all year long:

The Body is Not an Apology: founded by Sonya Renee Taylor, the mission of the website is to “foster global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human love and action in service toward a more just, equitable and compassionate world.”

Everyday Feminism: founded by Sandra Kim, the mission is “to help people dismantle everyday violence, discrimination, and marginalization through applied intersectional feminism and to create a world where self-determination and loving communities are social norms through compassionate activism.”

Wear Your Voice Magazine: is an intersectional feminist magazine “run by women and femmes of color who are trying to make more room for marginalized voices away from the white, cis-centric, heteronormative, patriarchal gaze.”

PEN America: part of PEN International, it is an community that works together to “ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others” with a specific focus on “the intersection of literature and human rights.”

And finally:

Pajiba: a community of movie and pop culture reviewers and commenters that is my favorite corner of the Internet, and who I have been reading for so long, I have added all the writers as social media friends because I feel like I know them that well. Radical self-love is also about connecting with community, and I have been part of this online community (if often as a lurker) for as long as I can remember.

Learning to Let Go

A writer friend of mine told me that being in your 20s is all about unbridled optimism that anything can happen, while being in your 30s is about figuring out your limitations, and what really is possible. Limitations are hard, she said. But it makes life so much easier when you just accept who you really are instead of constantly banging your head against your own weaknesses, hoping they’ll stop existing.

When I was younger, I had all these visions about what my life was going to look like, and what the future was going to hold for me. I was sold on my own potential, something adults had assured me I had plenty of for most of my life, but I also found it paralyzing. I could do anything. I could do anything. And that meant I had to pick and choose and apparently be very very good at it or else I would be wasting all that potential.

Things in my life did  not go as planned. In fact, they keep not going as planned. I have spent a lot of time trying to fit myself into spaces where I just don’t fit, and even if I managed to force my way in, being in them would make me constantly uncomfortable, and completely inauthentic. And why? Because of some worry that I was failing to live up to something as ill-defined as potential?

I was talking about feeling stuck, overwhelmed by the potential of my story. “Over determination is the enemy,” my friend reminded me. She told me to stop trying to force it, to move back toward writing as play. It was almost shocking advice. I have spent a long time trying to embrace writing as work. Somewhere along the way I forgot that it is also supposed to be fun.

And that life is supposed to be fun — or at least not miserable. If I was working on not forcing things in my greater life, why would I then be willing to force things in my writing? I had to let go.

It’s scary to let go. It’s scary to abandon plans — or to at least pull back on the details. It’s scary to imagine that at best you can aim for a certain direction and see what happens. As in life, so it is in writing. All the outlining in the world won’t actually take your story where it needs to go.

More importantly, worrying about living up to the potential of a story — or of a life — is a great way to squander said potential. No one person can do ALL the things in life. The therapist part of me of course knows this, but the writer part of me often forgets it. The story will come when it comes, and how it will come, and it won’t be forced.

So that’s where I am these days — trying to learn the art of letting go. My hope is that my letting go this idea of unrealized potential I can start to better focus on what already is, what I am already good at, and what I already know. I can stop living in the shadow of what could be, and enjoy the light of what actually is.

I think I’d rather be in the light.

 

*Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang

The Flying of Time

There comes a point in a new position where everything begins to feel routine. Where the schedule is pretty locked in, the tasks rote, and the days start to blend together. I always worry when this happens, because as the weeks whirl into months, I feel my life passes before my eyes at an almost numbing speed. I become complacent.

Writing is the only thing that seems to help keep the flying of time in check, because it is a measurable use of time. Most of my tasks disappear, as it were, by the next week. As a therapist, I see the same people over and over again, marking their progress with notes written weekly and treatment plans written every three months. But the progress in therapy is sometimes is small, and hard to see from week to week, like tracking the growth of a child. You know they are growing, but it takes a while to actually see it.

At the breakneck speed of a mental health clinic where I see clients one right after another, with one short break midway through a stretch of 9 clients in a row, it’s hard to spend a lot of time processing each session to look for those moments of growth or change. Each week picks up on the topics of the previous, so it feels sometimes like I am binging other people’s lives.

And it sometimes feels like in doing so I am neglecting my own. Again, writing is one of the few things that keeps me grounded in my own goals and dreams, and helps me see my own growth. I can see the pages that mark the passing of time, see the drafts build, one on another, and when I hit that final draft, have an actual product to give people that is a physical manifestation of “how I used my time.”

However, I struggle to make time for writing. It often comes after — after work, after chores, after general life maintenance. It’s been hard to put writing first. When I look back over a stretch of time and see how few pages I have to show for that period of time, I know my priorities have drifted away from me, and that my routine has taken over.

You’d think that the natural thing to do is to make writing part of that routine, and that has always been my goal. But with so little time, and so many other things going on, it continues to be very hard to make the kind of dedicated writing time I want. I end up getting snatches of time here and there, which never seem to let me get to the place I want to get to, where the words just flow and the story takes over. That is what I miss, more than anything, when I say I miss writing. I miss being a conduit instead of a work horse. I miss feeling inspired instead of feeling obligated. I miss getting quality time with my own imaginary adventures.

So, now that I see that my time management has gotten away from me, it’s time to make adjustments and put writing back up on the priority list. I know doing that though means that some other things may start to slide. There simply just isn’t enough time for everything. I have to use the time I have better.

The Good Parts

I have a confession to make: when I read books, I tend to skip through large swaths of text. It started when I was a kid, reading fantasy novels. I adore fantasy novels. But without fail, every fantasy author I have ever read has spent a tremendous amount of time describing things. Now, when you are creating a world mostly from scratch, there are a lot of new things to describe. World-building takes a lot of time (as I am learning, since I am now writing a contemporary fantasy novel), and authors want to make sure that effort shows in their book.

And while I know there are readers who really appreciate those long, detailed passages that describe all the unique things of that magical new world, I am not one of them. I find myself skimming, searching out the gist of whatever is being described — the character likes fancy clothing or the home is drafty and cold — and then move on to dialogue and action. Sometimes I have to go back and actually read something I’ve skimmed through because I’ve missed something important, but mostly I can get away with skipping entire paragraphs without missing anything significant.

This is not just a fantasy and science fiction problem either — I have ready plenty of mysteries where characters are described like the author is working with a sketch artist, and romances where the heroine’s wardrobe has gotten more page-space than the love scenes.

I should say that I have never not enjoyed a book because I skipped over the long descriptions — in fact, some of the best lines I have ever read have been in those passages (when I have read them). They just tend to interfere with my primary driving force as a reader — to find out what happens next.

Now that I am trying to create a new world, I find myself writing those same long passages that describe everything. And honestly, I have been wondering just how much I have to actually include — and how much I can get away with leaving out. It is an essential question for every writer — how much can you trust the reader to fill in the blanks?

I know there is no one-size-fits-all level of description that will satisfy every reader, and certainly I may be on the far side of the spectrum in the number of scenes I gloss over. And while there probably are more writers not writing enough vivid description, I also don’t want to be one of those writers that overdoes it either. But it’s a hard balance to achieve.

But, since I am making my confession, I should also make my apologies. To most every author I have ever read, even the ones I loved — I am sorry for not actually reading all the words you wrote. I am sure they were amazing words. Gorgeous descriptions. Pure poetry. I likely skipped your best lines.

But I probably loved your book, anyway.

The Myth of the Lone Writer

 

Anyone who tells you that writing is a solitary activity is telling tales. Even ignoring the number of published authors who are actually writing teams (such as The Stiletto Gang’s own Sparkle Abbey), and others who use ghost writers, no writer I have ever met has ever been published without a high level of support from an entire team of people. That support usually starts with other writers — people who share the insane desire to try to create worlds out of words for others to play in.

I first met members of my personal writing support team at Western Washington University, where I took my first steps toward becoming a writer. Coming back to Washington still feels like coming home for me, and I feel more strongly tied in to the writing communities out here than in either of my other two homes (Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY).

So I was more than happy to go with fellow Blue Zephyr Press author (and The Stiletto Gang blogger) Bethany Maines to the Creative Colloquy Third Anniversary Party in Tacoma, WA. With special guest MC Tod Marshall, the Washington State Poet Laureate, the event boasted five scheduled guest readers (all published in the Creative Colloquy literary magazine, either online or in print), and an open mic that offered a chance for others to share their work as well. Authors read to a packed house at the B Sharp Coffee Shop, and prizes were given out to audience members via raffle tickets throughout the course of the evening. (I, sadly, did not win anything.)

What I noticed most about the gathering was how many readers had teams of support with them. It seemed to me that not a single writer was there alone. And if they started off the night alone, the act of sharing their work to the group suddenly made them seem less so, as others congratulated them for reading, for having the nerve to stand up and share their words in a public space.

I don’t often get time to go to readings or literary events, and so I am not often reminded of just how many of us writers — and people willing to support us — there are. You’d think I’d feel intimidated, but whenever I am in a space like that, I just feel excited and proud to be part of the community around me. I’m always just so happy to know that I’m not alone in the struggle, and in the celebration, of writing.Being there with someone from my own support network made it all the more obvious that writing is rarely the loner activity it’s often portrayed as being. During my week visit, I had countless conversations with Bethany and others in my writing group and extended reading network about my latest writing project (a contemporary fantasy series based on a short story I wrote for a contest last year) that shaped the world I was creating. We got to spend rare time together writing in the same space, making use of the ability to use an auxiliary brain to track down words we couldn’t quite remember, being inspired by the steady clicking of the computer next to us, and generally enjoying the company of someone who gets it when you say that your characters aren’t cooperating. All of this was before we even shared the actual works themselves, a process that begins with beta readers, and, basically, never ends. Even after a work is published, it still takes other people — namely an audience — to bring it to life.

Prejudice and Fake News

I have been reading comments on stories about Drumpf’s outrageous lie over the weekend that Obama had Drumpf Tower wire-tapped and here is how it seems to go: Drumpf wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t think it was true, which means there is proof of it, and we need an investigation to find that proof – of the thing there currently is no proof of.

This is very different than the stories about Drumpf’s ties to Russia where journalists are pointing out facts – all these people tied to Drumpf talked to the Russian ambassador and other folks at these times, while these other things were happening, and these particular Drumpf aligned folks then lied about it. 

A real story starts with facts and sees where they lead, and a real journalist lets the facts create the theory. 

A conspiracy theorist starts with a theory, and then insists there must be proof of it, and any failure to find the proof just proves how powerful the people responsible for the conspiracy are. In selling a conspiracy theory, facts are irrelevant, and fear and outrage are all that matter. 

This is how you can tell fake news from real news: did it start with facts, or with theory? Is someone drawing conclusions for you, or letting you draw your own? Is there a clear line of events you can trace, or a corkscrew of situations that only add up to something if you follow a particular twisty path? 

And, as always, follow the money. Find the motivation. Not a secret motivation that only makes sense if you’re a Bond villain or part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but a real, human motivation like, I dunno – protecting your known and unknown financial ties to a foreign country.

Take any particular bias you have against the people involved in a story out of the equation, and ask yourself: does this make sense? 

That’s the beauty of logic – it’s not interested in what we want to be true, but in finding out what actually is. 

The horror of conspiracy theories is that they are only interested in what you (and your biases) want to be true, and never care about – or can find any tangible connection to – what is actually true. They only make sense through the lens of bias. They justify prejudice and hatred, and in fact only exist to serve that purpose. 

And that’s what I kept reading – comments about hate for Obama that gets to continue to be justified by a story that paints him as a villain capable of any evil act. Because Obama is evil, the story must be true. The story must be true because Obama is evil. There is no room for actual facts in that equation. Prejudice is its own proof.

 The solution to fake news isn’t more facts. What researchers know is that facts don’t change minds, and in fact, there have been some studies that show that being presented with new facts can actually make someone double-down on their prior (often irrational) belief. If you want to get rid of fake news, you have to first attack the thing that makes people want to believe in it in the first place: prejudice.

My first training on bias and prejudice was when I was studying journalism as an undergrad. Journalists are trained to try to be as objective as possible. How?
You have to be willing to be wrong to follow facts instead of prejudice. You have to be able to handle the idea that the facts may not lead where you want them to, and that your beliefs may be challenged in a way that may even force you to change them. You have to commit to the idea that truth is more important than comfort. You have to be able to tolerate the tension of not knowing all the answers and not jumping to any conclusions. You have to find sources — as many as possible and as close to the center of the story as possible — to make sure you have all the information possible.

This is what ethical journalists do, every day. If you want to learn to consume media the same way the best journalists report it, you have to start in the same place as journalists do – by identifying and moving past your own prejudices. And if you want to convince someone else that what they are reading is fake news, you have to first convince them that they have ulterior motives for believing it —  you have to convince them that they are reading through the lens of prejudice. Only once they recognize WHY they are so willing to believe the story — why they will believe anything of someone they hate or a group they know little about (and often fear) — then they can start to see the facts from a more objective point of view. Maybe they’ll even be convinced. 

 Or, maybe they’ll just form new prejudices.

Relatively Speaking

 

I have been thinking a lot about relative experience.

“Relatively speaking” is a phrase we toss around casually, an improvised rescaling of any given comparison. Hidden in the phrase is an acknowledgement that the scale of comparison has been significantly reduced to include a limited range of possible experiences or perceptions of reality, and that range is defined by a supposedly shared context—both speaker and audience must acknowledge some general truths about the things being compared.  But it can also be a catch all, a brief acknowledgement that the context is not the same from one person to the next, that “the worst day ever!” in one life cannot be appropriately compared to the “worst day ever!” in another.

In my relatively limited (there’s that word again!) understanding of economics, I am able to grasp at least this concept: an apple does not cost the same to everyone who buys it. While the price of the apple may be fixed, the cost of that apple relative to the income of the individual buying it is not. Things can get more complicated when you don’t just compare income (we each make the same amount of money, so the apple should cost the same to both of us) but expenses as well: if we each make the same income, but your rent is higher than mine, that apple will be a greater percentage of your food allowance than it will be of mine. In that way, the apple could relatively cost you more. 

This sort of relative cost idea can be translated to experience as well, so that any given experience can cost or benefit any individual relative to the other experiences in their life — everything needs context. A fender bender on a day where everything else is going well most likely won’t be perceived as negatively as if it happened on a day when several things seem to be going wrong. However, the context that a person operates in is not daily, but cumulative: even if nothing else is going wrong today, things have been going wrong all week, all month, all year, for the past decade. Any new experience is measured against previous experiences in order to determine its particular impact, positive or negative.

And yet, “nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Without this comparison, any given experience could theoretically stand on its own. It wouldn’t be good or bad, relatively speaking, but simply good or bad, inherently. Or, in what I imagine as Buddhist thinking, neither good nor bad, but simply existing, ideally without impact, without contributing to some greater context, acknowledged and let go. If we could escape our contexts, maybe we could escape relative thinking. In theory, that is how to escape suffering.

Except an apple doesn’t cost the same to everyone. “Expensive” is a relative concept. So is safe, and healthy, and successful, and all the things we end up having to measure for ourselves, individually. I read in Loneliness (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008) that people even have a biological set point for their need for social connection, varying from one person to another. Even our biology forces relativity on us.

So we seek out contexts similar to our own, or as close as possible. We look for people with similar experiences, similar perspectives, similar measurement scales. This is how I make sense of a world where otherwise nice-seeming people don’t seem to grasp the pain and suffering of others. Their experiences are so far removed from those different than them that they have no reference point of comparison. For example, a white person living in an all-white community may not have had any direct experience with seeing a friend or loved one deal with racism and have trouble believing either that it exists or that it is as systemic as it is. It’s the way that many men don’t seem to get sexism until it impacts their daughters. If we are all stuck comparing everyone else’s experiences to our own, relatively speaking, we all start to think that apples cost the same to everyone, and that other people are just complaining for no reason — or are incapable of understanding the true value of an apple. It takes concerted effort to try to see the world through someone else’s lens, and to understand how their cumulative experiences shape any given moment in their lives, to understand, for example, the anger that seems to come out of nowhere but is for that person the result of the straw that broke the camels back. 

Our internal scales can be powerful forces. But we can change those scales, and alter what we measure all of our experiences against; change the thinking, change the comparison, build compassion. In the meantime, if we resize our experiences, as Munroe said, to fit the scales in our head, it might be worth noting that other people have their own scales, too. And that we can’t erase someone else’s experiences just because we have no reference point to compare them to. We’re not all buying the same apples with the same money, and we aren’t all carrying the same straws on our backs. For those of us with privilege, the apples are always going to cost a little less, and we’re going to start off with less straws to carry. For those without relative privilege, apples will always cost more, and their camels have been pre-loaded with burdens.

It really is all relative. And context is everything.