In the Breaking, Maybe Something Beautiful
My subject today is brokenness and the things that come out of that brokenness.
There is something of the tragic in our brokenness, and it astounds me how difficult we find it to go to the source of our tragedies, be they societal ones that affect our emotional and psychological well-being or personal ones that arise out of the more intimate relationships we share with others or with ourselves. I have come to believe that if we are not brave enough to go to the place of the pain—which is to say where the truth of ourselves is laid bare—then we are losing out on experiencing the beauty of our humanity and on coming to an understanding of what we were meant to do in our brief moments of residence on this lovely and blessed planet.
Like you, I live my life in the intersection between personal tragedies and the greater cultural and political tragedies that shape the milieux encircling me—cultural and political tragedies that define me, whether I am aware of it or not. As creative as I’d like to think I am, I did not give birth to myself, nor did I invent myself. Just as I had no control over my beginnings, I will have little or no control over the way my story ends.
The world ends every day for hundreds of thousands of human beings on planet Earth. Cause of death can be attributed to an aging body that has arrived at its natural end, or to diseases that attack with stubborn and relentless ferocity, or to illogical but persistent human violence. War is a constant in the history of humanity, and there seems to be no antidote to treat the underlying conditions that compel nations to engage in an armed and militarized system that justifies the killing of other human beings for political and ideological reasons. All of this is perpetuated generation after generation and glossed over with words like freedom, which beguiles the citizenry into believing that they are constructing a future paradise when what they are really doing is destroying peoples whom they profoundly misunderstand. If I had the time or inclination, I could list the litany of disturbing events that are occurring in the society of which I am a part, which violate the values that I was taught as a citizen of this country to nurture in myself and to live my life by.
I am a writer, and I do not write in a cultural or a political void. Like every citizen, my person, my identity, my individuality, however unique, is bound up in, tied into, and tied up by the village around me. As a writer, I am a student of human nature, and I find myself captivated by the culture around me. And I am also its captive. My American identity both liberates me and imprisons me. But I want to stop here to discuss this notion of the I.
I do not matter.
It is ludicrous to speak of an I that has an existence of its own. I only matter in the context of my relationships to others and to the communities I belong to—communities that intersect and are, often, in conflict with one another—which makes the task of living more than a little complicated.
My very identity is given to me by the very communities that surround me in a more or less unavoidable intimacy. I belong to a Mexican American people who have a long and enduring presence in these United States, a people who challenge the very idea of an American identity that has as its basis an Anglo-American and/or European tradition. For that reminder, my people have paid a price—and it is no wonder that racist attitudes have persisted regarding my community for much longer than I have been alive.
I belong to the LGBTQ+ community because my survival depends upon my belonging to that community and speaking as a member of that community, and on behalf of that community. Let me be clear, being gay does necessarily mean that I must embrace the idea of community—but I believe that embracing and helping to create community among those of us who are gay, is what helps us to survive. It is my duty, and perhaps something of a privilege, to remind the heterosexual majority that we are every bit as human and worthy of respect and dignity as they are. Our humanity does not reside in our sexual attractions but in the fact that we are all human beings endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights—and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
All of the identities that reside within me naturally lead me toward being a dissenter. And I believe that my dissent is what makes me a loyal citizen of my country. I believe in democracy. I believe in individual rights. I believe in protecting the rights of minorities. I believe that I must make my peace with the will of the people in an election, whether or not I am in agreement with the will of the people. I believe in the fundamental principles on which this country was founded, including the separation of church and state—which we must not abandon if we are to survive as a free people. As a Christian who has read and studied the Constitution and who spent a great deal of my early adulthood studying both the Old and New testaments, I have a healthy fear of God. But I am far more afraid of those who claim to know his infinite mind and claim to speak on his behalf. The foundation of American democracy ought not to be built on the stones cast by “Christians” who make a pastime of condemning those who are in disagreement with their ungenerous theologies.
This is where I find myself today, in a country at war with itself. But let me reiterate, there is no I without a we. There is no writer without that miraculous being we call a reader. No reader? No writer. No writer? No reader. There is a profound belonging and community, an unbreakable bond, between a writer and a reader that resides in that creation we call a book. A book is a place of communion. A book is a place of encounter. A book is where a dead word is resurrected and becomes a living thing, as alive as any tree, a cleansing as any river, as open as any piece of lovely sky. A writer pours out his grief, his wounds, his pain, his darkest hours, his wonderous moments of joy onto the page—and the reader stops to drink of those waters. Though the writer may have cried bitter tears in the making of a book, there will always be a reader who tastes the sweetness of humanity in the words she reads.
I cannot overstate what a privilege it is to be a part of the miraculous mystery of what happens when a book is opened by a curious and hungry, generous and beautiful mind. Nor can I overstate the sense of responsibility that I have as a writer who is first, and always, a citizen. To be a citizen is to hold the fundamental office on which our society and our democracy was founded.
I endeavor to create a literature for young people that weds our personal and intimate lives with the greater historical events and the communal stories that shape us. “In a monstrous time,” Stanley Kunitz wrote, “the heart breaks and breaks—and lives in the breaking.” I do think we live in a monstrous time. For me, this is where all the roads have led: it is my calling to remain true to my office as citizen, to remain committed to the communities that give me breath and words and life, and to write for young people. To write for young people so that their hope will hold fast and endure, and that with that hope, they may yet bring into being the paradise that we have failed to give life to.
I grow older by the day. But I have not lost my hope, nor my idea of the beautiful. It is a difficult thing to get to the source of our tragedies. But not doing so will prove to be the undoing of both ourselves and our society. We must come to understand our own brokenness even as we are breaking. It is from that breaking that we are able to create something beautiful.
Yes, I write in a monstrous time. But I write for our children, who are beauty itself. What a privilege to do what I do. What an honor. What a joy.
Article is adapted from his 2018 Charlotte Zolotow Lecture delivered on October 12, 2018, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.