Even the least pugnacious can help in the fight for a better world.
In the children’s book Martin the Warrior by Brian Jacques, woodland creatures are fighting, killing, and dying to free themselves of the evil stoat, Badrang. A young mouse, Brome, blanches at seeing his squirrel friend Felldoh slay some of Badrang’s horde.
“I’m not a warrior,” Brome says. “I know that now. I don’t want to see creatures killed.”
Felldoh responds easily, ruffling the mouse’s ears.
“Then you can become a healer, one who cares for the wounded. It takes a brave beast to dash about in battle doing that.”
It’s a simple scene in a 20-year-old children’s book, but when I read it out loud to my daughter, I felt like one of Felldoh’s javelins had hit my chest.
Like many of you, I spend a lot of time worrying about our world. There’s a lot to fix out there: racism, sexism, wealth inequality, intolerance of religious belief, environmental catastrophe…
I’ll give us all an anxiety attack if I keep listing out the problems. Sometimes, I do feel like I’m circling down into an anxiety spiral, upset about how my efforts to fight against those currents feel insignificant.
And, sometimes, I feel like I’m falling into despair because fighting — being angry, aggressive, or uncompromising — is contrary to my personality.
In fifth grade, one of my friends pulled me to the side.
“You know what I like about you?” she said. “If there were a grasshopper dying in the hallway here, you’d be the only one around who would feel sad.”
I was shocked. No one else would feel sad?
Now I know that, of course, other people would feel sad. But the point my friend was making about me, about my thin skin that is permeable to the world’s pain, is still true. Like a lot of people, the anger in the world is both utterly understandable and painful.
Felldoh has the right suggestion for me. If I can’t be a fighter (and the world needs fighters), that’s okay. It’s who I am.
But I can be a healer.
I worry the self-righteous anger that fuels so many of us (including myself) is really a crutch. Self-righteousness allows us to indulge in a sense that our own views are perfectly correct without stepping outside our own convictions to ask, humbly and with an open mind, why other people might disagree.
That’s what I love about literature. Literature, especially fiction, beguiles readers into letting down their defenses and entering a new world. Like the witch beckoning Hansel and Gretel into her gingerbread house, literature asks us to cross a threshold into a new, and often unexpected, world.
Once inside, we see perspectives we hadn’t imagined, and we experience the world in a new way. I’m so grateful to the books that have changed, broadened, and challenged my mind: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco, If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, and Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens are just a few that have sunk their teeth into me recently.
The list is very long.
In this column, I’ve tried to celebrate not only the books that change our minds, improve our worlds, or just make life more enjoyable (a tall task sometimes), but also the people who promote books and use books to make the world better. We’ve looked at people who send books to imprisoned people, at people who read submissions at literary magazines, and at the people who take time from their busy lives to plan book festivals or writers conferences.
The list of kindness is very long, too.
At the top of that list ought to be the editor-in-chief who brings us together here: Holly Smith. She is infinitely patient (well, nearly infinitely), obsessed with books, a tireless booster of books and authors, and a razor-sharp editor. The Independent thrives because of her.
But part of being kind is recognizing my own limits, and so now the time has come for me to step away from the obligation of writing this column. It has been a beautiful obligation, and I’ve been thrilled to play a small part in highlighting some of the good that people have done. Now I need to reclaim a little of my time.
I hope to continue to serve as a healer, dashing about in battle, as Felldoh recommended, healing those who need it. I want to continue to write stories that remind people that humanity has always faced momentous challenges, and sometimes we have been capable of rising to the moment. There are lessons to be learned from the times when we’ve failed, too. I also want to continue to boost authors, literacy, social justice, and generosity.
Thank you for joining me on this exploration into kindness. I hope it’s been heartening or maybe even a little inspiring. My interviews have certainly inspired me.
May your heart be warm, and a book be nestled in your hands.
Carrie Callaghan is a historical fiction novelist living in Maryland with her family. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, came out in 2018 from Amberjack. Her next novel, Salt the Snow, is forthcoming in January 2020.