In the way most of us have been trained to read literature, we regard characters in a text as entities outside ourselves from whom we have nothing to learn. This is why we call the practice ‘criticism:’ we make up ‘theses’ as to the characters’ motives and meanings, justify these theses with ‘evidence,’ and deliver this amalgam to our teachers and peers in the form of an ‘argument.’ In so doing, we receive material accolades of some kind, whether they be a grade, a compliment, or simply our self-identification as ‘smart.’ At any rate, we learn nothing about ourselves in the process, but only exploit the text’s characters for the sake of getting something that we feel we need.
I call this paradigm the ‘story of perfection,’ and in it, we suggest that we ourselves are perfect, that we have so little in common with the characters in a text that we can judge them with the guise of objectivity. In this mode, it’s almost as though we ourselves stand on a balcony high above the action in the text, a stage on which the characters play and commerce. Anything that happens to them won’t affect us, for we are only watching. Instead, what happens to the characters can be used as a resource to enhance our self-image.
We behave in this way, of course, because we think it makes us safe, but the truth turns out to be anything but. The more we live in the ‘story of perfection,’ the more we come to believe that anyone who sees us, who judges us (as we judge the characters), is a threat, which means the more we come to inhabit the fundamental mode of ‘defense.’ In this mode, we preemptively dismiss anything that could help us reframe our understanding of ourselves or our lives, which is a way of describing wisdom. In other words, we reject and throw away that which could liberate us from outdated understandings. Each new situation we rise to, we do so empty-handed, an orientation which renders us increasingly brittle to experience.
The contrasting way to live is one all of us remember from our childhoods. In this way of living, we experienced ourselves as not so much on the balcony with respect to the story, as on the stage: if we were playing a game involving Spiderman, we were Spiderman; if our game was called ‘House,’ we were a parent or child. In this orientation to the world, we assumed the identities and experiences of characters in a story rather than judged them, and in so doing, we accessed their wisdom, transforming ourselves in ways that changed our lives. Coming back to our life as a child having assumed the identity of Spiderman, for instance, we now knew the futility of even superpowers to improve our lot, an awareness which increased our focus on doing what could with the power—and strength—we already had. Returning to ourselves having played a parent in ‘House,’ we understood how much our mood depended on the relative toughness of a day, a fact which led us to forgive our own parents in hard times. As children, we gained wisdom through identification and engagement, and this transformation reframed our horizons, improved our relationships, and generated new possibilities for our lives.
All this changed once we entered adolescence and were criticized for using our imaginations, as we remember. At this time, we got the message that if we left our own story in favor of the story of a character, we would come back to find ourselves having been criticized for the act; we would be made fun of and lose status in the collective, which would increase the difficulty of the story of our lives. In this transaction, the story of perfection was born: we came to understand that the best way to spend our time, was defending an image of ourselves rather than engaging in play, and we learned to judge characters—and other people—from the vantage of the balcony.
How to get off the balcony, then, and back into story? How to renew our practice of engaging with story in a manner that procures wisdom?
We will never again be able to do this with the degree of freedom that we experienced as children, of course. As adults, we forever know that when we play as Spiderman, or a parent or child in a game of ‘House,’ we are not really that person—at least, the illusion never lasts for long. However, this alteration has its benefits as well as its drawbacks: although we will never again experience the liberty of a lack of distinction between the story of ourselves, and the story of a character, what we can do now that we couldn’t do as children is articulate the changes we go through in the process: we can name the wisdom we gain through the venue of characters, and in so doing, we can improve our own lives and become teachers and healers in the lives of others.
The first step of this process is called ‘engaged reading,’ and it’s a twofold practice of first recognizing that we stand on the balcony with respect to a story’s characters, then daring ourselves to step off. From here, we can wholeheartedly identify with the characters in the next step, ‘character identifications;’ articulate the wisdom we gained from this process through the third step, ‘psychic maps;’ apply this wisdom to our lives through the fourth, ‘executive summaries;’ and finally, challenge ourselves to practice or share the wisdom through the fifth step, ‘community mapping.’ Steps two through five of this process will be covered in later blog posts. For now, I’ll focus on the initial step of recognizing that we stand on the balcony with respect to a character or story, through an exercise that I call ‘antipodiatry.’
Antipodiatry is so named for two reasons: 1) it relies on antipodes, and 2) it sounds somewhat clinical, which is more of a playful reason. (The word ‘podiatry’ itself refers to the treatment of feet, but that’s a coincidence I’m having fun with.) In this practice, we first admit that we’re judging a character; then expand our awareness by asking what this judgement implies about us; and finally bring home the matter by illuminating the reasons for our judgement in the first place. From this latter vista, the judgement dissolves and we can begin the practice of identifying with the character.
To begin an ‘antipodiatry’ exercise, first create a table with two columns and label the column on the left with the name of a character from a work of literature about whom you have judgements. For instance, in the table below I’ll write the name ‘Humbert Humbert,’ the pedophile from Lolita and one of the most problematic characters in all of literature:
Next, enumerate a list of your judgements about the character in the column under that character’s name, allowing them to flow up from your gut and onto the paper. These judgements can be written in the form of adjectives or nouns. For instance, my list on Humbert Humbert includes the terms ‘sick,’ ‘predatory,’ ‘evil,’ and ‘arrested.’ I could go on if I wanted, and sometimes, it might be useful to do so. However, I will stop at just these four for the sake of this demonstration. At any rate, you will know you are ready to stop when the flow of your judgements seems to end.
From here, it’s useful to reflect on the two poles necessary to render a judgement—the two antipodes, borrowing from our coinage of ‘antipodiatry.’ In other words, what is necessary about the person judging someone else as ‘sick,’ ‘predatory,’ ‘evil,’ etc, in order that those judgements can be made? There is an allusion to be made to the act of seeing itself: in order to see someone as a whole person rather than as a mere part or parts, I must have some distance from them; the nature of this distance will then tell me as much about me as it does about them.
Bringing this concept home in our exercise involving Humbert Humbert, the next step is to label the second column ‘me’ and to reflect on which qualities I must have—which ‘antipodes’ I must embody—in order that I can see Humbert in the ways I see him. These are usually opposites, but not necessarily; as with the previous step, the key here is to inhabit stillness and let the answers arise from my gut.
Reflecting on the qualities with which I’ve affixed Humbert, the following antipodes come to me:
Now, a few things are of note here:
- I might have wanted to write something like ‘benevolent’ in place of ‘well-intentioned,’ only because it would have sounded better, avoiding the redundancy that ‘well’ creates. However, ‘well-intentioned’ was the term that arose from my gut and, as such, represented a deeper truth. Following our guts in these processes is always the route to more transformative work, and prettiness is often sacrificed in the process.
- Just because I have shifted focus from Humbert in this exercise, to myself, does not mean that Humbert is not these qualities with which I’ve affixed him, nor that he’s ‘off the hook’ for living in any of these ways. Instead, the angle that’s useful to come at this practice from is that it’s actually about me rather than Humbert: I am the one who’s reading and seeking to gain from the book, and my judgements about Humbert are preventing me from entering the text and thus from gaining as much as I otherwise could. Accordingly, it’s my judgement about Humbert that becomes my focus—not Humbert himself.
At this point, there is often nothing more necessary in order to abandon our judgements of a text’s characters; we can already see that the judgements exist in order to prop up qualities we intend to hold about ourselves, and this realization alone neutralizes them. However, it can be even more illuminating to ask why we held the judgements in the first place, and I’ll go this extra step both for the sake of demonstration and for those who are new to exercises like this.
The following are the essential questions to get at the reasons behind our judgements:
- What investment do I have in seeing myself in the ways I’ve attributed to myself?
- What do I fear I would lose if I instead saw myself in the ways I’d attributed to the character?
These questions can be posed in sequence for each of the ‘antipodes’ that exist between myself and a character. For instance, looking at the dynamic between my ‘wellness,’ and Humbert’s ‘sickness,’ I might come away with the following two answers:
- I’m invested in seeing myself as ‘well’ because I don’t want others to worry about me.
- If I saw myself as ‘sick,’ others might worry about me, and this would mean losing my privacy.
Through this exercise, I learn something new about myself, which is that ‘privacy’ is a value of import to me. Furthermore, I learn that it’s connected to ‘wellness;’ I learn that ‘wellness’ is something I posture—and indeed, even judge others as lacking in order to create the impression of in myself—so that others won’t worry about me and thus threaten my privacy.
As with the previous exercise, this one swiftly shifts my focus from Humbert to myself, such that I both learn something about myself and neutralize my judgement about the character.
If I were to repeat the exercise for the following two antipodes—‘predatory’ and ‘fair’—I might come away with the following pair of answers:
- I’m invested in seeing myself as ‘fair’ because I don’t want others to question me.
- If I saw myself as ‘predatory,’ I would have to prove my motives to others and myself, which means I would have to put in more of an effort to live according to principle.
Here again, I learn that my judgement about Humbert in fact carries weight and energy for myself, that it tells me something about myself which I otherwise might not have learned. In this case, I learn that my investment in seeing myself as ‘fair’ in fact masks a reluctance to prove myself, to back my principles with action, something which may be inhibiting me in ways I’m not aware of.
This exercise alone can lead to greater health, openness, and awareness in our lives, and of course, it’s applicable not just to characters in texts, but also to people whom we judge in our day-to-day existence. Most times we examine a judgement, we will find that it exists more to prop something up in ourselves than it does to help us navigate the world, and with this realization, we will find that it evaporates.
Having relinquished our judgements about characters in a story, we become able to identify with them in a manner that will procure wisdom, improve our lives, and heighten our capacities as teachers and healers, as outlined above. As stated there, too, I will cover the remainder of this process in later posts, leaving you here with the tenets of the antipodiatry exercise and its vexing ramifications about Humbert Humbert. If you feel called to try out an antipodiatry exercise with a character of your own choosing, I’d love to hear of the results below!