A Language of Mirrors and Light

A history of miscommunication.

This is part of the problem that fiction aims to solve. Some say fiction should function like a mirror; when done well, the story reflects society’s ills and depravities back on itself. I believe fiction can also illuminate a better path. Perhaps, when done well, fiction is both of these things, a mirror and a light.

As I’m working on revisions to my first novel, I’ve started to think about my purpose for writing. Do I want to be a mirror or a light? Do I want my story and its characters to show the world as it is, and hope that this revelation stirs something in the reader’s conscience? Or would I rather show society what it could be, encouraging all of us to be a little better? I think about the characters I’m writing and the motivation for doing so, and realize that at the story’s foundation is a critique of the toxic masculinity under which so many of us have grown up. Is it my goal to reflect that toxicity back on the people suffering from it, or to show readers, young and old, that there are better options of being-in-the-world?

For me, I think it’s a little of both. In the story world I’ve created, the boys are idealized in some ways. They have their struggles and flaws, sure, but they’ve also developed a little bit more freely away from the harmful tradition of masculinity that tells boys they shouldn’t feel, they shouldn’t share, they shouldn’t love—or at the very least, that they shouldn’t express these emotions. We tell our girls it’s okay to be emotional; indeed, the extreme side of this condition is that we have made their emotions cliché. Women are “too” emotional to function in certain roles. Boys, on the other hand, are conditioned away from those emotions so that they supposedly can function better in public roles, be they in leadership, education, politics, business, etc.

What are we doing to our boys? When did we decide that it would be better to condition our children into half-humans? Every person thinks and feels, loves and fears, hates and adores. Everyone experiences fear and sadness, excitement and grief, confusion and confidence. Yet, we tell our girls and our boys that only half of these natural, human emotions belong to each of them. We have split and diluted them, generation after generation, and destroyed our language in the process, because our language has become similarly limited and divided. By depriving boys of their tenderness and girls of their agency, we have deprived ourselves of the ability to accurately communicate who we are as whole persons. Without whole persons, we deprive ourselves of a society composed of thoughtful, complex, and cultured individuals.

I’ve been cautioned recently not to use terms like “toxic masculinity,” “white male privilege,” “heteronormativity,” or “patriarchy.” The rationale provided from those who dislike these terms suggests that the problem with the terms is that they come across as attacks, and attacks necessarily spur response, either of retribution or dismissal (e.g. the instinctual “not all men!” response to societal critique). I do understand the logic, here, but I think it loses the forest for the trees. What I mean is, those who react negatively to the terms are missing the concept behind them. If we can’t get beyond the word in order to see the meaning, then our language is broken, or our way of communicating has become insufficient.

How can we repair it? For me, I think a language of kindness is the starting point. A language of kindness is one that is open to being the mirror and the light; if we can reflect deeply and honestly on our own faults and promises, we might become more prepared to forgive the failures of others, and more effective at fostering others’ potential, too.

This is why we still need stories. Whether we write prose or poetry, fiction or fact, stories that are told in the language of kindness invite everyone in and offer a safe place for individuals to do that reflecting, and to feel inspired. And the stories we share, the narratives that enter into our collective dialogue, remind us how to communicate with one another again. They have the capacity to transcend polarization.

In an age of simultaneous desensitization and hypersensitivity, where it has become habit to respond instinctively and combatively—to defend one’s self at all costs—rather than to listen, digest, and consider before engaging, stories encourage a language of mirrors and light. An invitation to feel and to think, and the opportunity to choose a different way.

Language, perhaps more than anything else, is a choice. What will you choose?