Earlier this year, I took part in 1000 Voices for Compassion (a.k.a. #1000Speak) and posted articles about self-compassion and examples of compassionate actions in books I’ve read. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding blogging experiences I’ve ever had; and I knew before I had even finished drafting my second #1000Speak post that I wanted to write more in the future whenever my writing schedule allowed. Today happens to be one of those days.
This #1000Speak post is a little different from past ones. It’s a story of sorts, one that balances the personal with the universal. It’s about inspiration, sadness, and healing. It’s a story about the power of compassionate writing, the necessity for it in our world, and the impact it can have you as a writer.
Some of you may know that I’m a published poet, and that I’ve often used poetry as an avenue of expressing emotions or reactions to life experiences. Most of the inspirations – which include a toxic friendship, a newspaper headline regarding a favorite high school teacher, and defending one’s artistic choices – are deeply personal. “Elegy” is one of the few exceptions. It marks the first time I wrote a poem where, more than hoping to soothe my own feelings, I was writing for other people more than I was writing for myself.
When Social Injustice Hits Close to Home
Today’s post coincides with the 2015 Boston Marathon, an annual footrace held in my home state of Massachusetts. Maybe you’ve heard of the Marathon before – and maybe you might know that two years ago, the Boston Marathon was cut short due to a terrorist attack at the finish line. (You can read more about my reactions to the Boston Marathon bombings here.) That afternoon, and that moment in particular, was when the idea for “Elegy” was born.
For days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bombings. Even if I avoided the news coverage, my mind kept replaying the images I’d seen. Runners and spectators alike fleeing from the explosions, hurrying toward the injured and carrying them to safety, screaming, crying, bloodied, hugging each other – they haunted me to the point that I was constantly fighting a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
Not only that, but I felt like a special place for so many people – including myself – had been violated. I’ve never attended the Boston Marathon, but I know the neighborhood of the finish line (Boylston Street, in the Back Bay district) better than any other part of Boston. It’s home to Copley Place, the shopping center where I tried on the junior bridesmaid dress I wore at my cousin Erin’s wedding when I was 13 years old; Copley Square, the Boston Public Library, and historic churches, all of which host events during the Boston Book Festival; Grub Street, where I’ve taken several creative writing classes; and Emerson College, where I received my copyediting certificate in 2013. And that’s just for starters.
Every time I go back to Boylston Street, it feels like visiting an old friend. Cherished memories really can turn a place into something like a fictional character from your favorite book. And to see that character, that dear friend and source of happy memories and meaning, be littered with bomb debris and covered with blood… It broke my heart.
At first I scolded myself for my sensitivity. Why was I so upset? I was OK. So were my family and friends. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who had attended the race that year. Yet I couldn’t help but acknowledge how I felt. People were suffering in so many ways, and children had been robbed of their innocence. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. And for that, I was deeply saddened and sorry for them, even though I’d never fully understand their pain.
That’s when I realized that I needed to write a poem – and this poem would need to be written from a place of compassion, and convey both sympathy and empathy.
What’s the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?
Since it’s easy to confuse the meanings of “sympathy” and “empathy,” now might be a good time to explain the differences between the two words.
First, here’s how Merriam Webster defines “sympathy“:
The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.
What does it mean to sympathize with someone? We acknowledge their emotional hardship and offer comfort or support. We recognize how that person feels, but we can’t share in that feeling because we haven’t been in the same position or aren’t familiar with the experience that person is going through.
Now, here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “empathy“:
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Sounds more visceral than sympathy, doesn’t it? Because when we empathize with someone, we don’t just recognize their feelings. We share those feelings. We understand how they feel because we’ve been through the same loss or situation ourselves, and perhaps we experience those emotions all over again in the process.
So, how does one convey sympathy and empathy in their writing if one hasn’t experienced the suffering they’re inspired to write about? By starting from a place of sympathy that’s mixed with other, more extreme emotions – anger, grief, and horror, to name a few – that help one work toward empathy. I’ll never truly understand the pain and hardships that victims’ families and survivors of the Marathon bombings have had to endure. Yet, this poem was clamoring to come out, and a few stanzas of “I’m sorry, I wish this never happened” wouldn’t suffice. In order for “Elegy” to work and for me to adequately reflect the depth of my sympathy, I would have to put myself in the survivors’ shoes and imagine what that nightmare must have been like.
The Method and Experience of Writing “Elegy”
For the first stanza, I set the scene of a peaceful, normal day at Copley Square without specifically naming streets, buildings, etc. I wanted to give readers the ability to interpret the place as a public spot in any city, anywhere. That way, they could picture a setting other than Boston – maybe their favorite city in the world, or their own hometown.
In the second stanza, I shared a couple reasons why this place is meaningful for me. I recalled memories and details from my many visits to Copley Square, and shared a hope or two regarding future visits. That was all. I didn’t want to spend much time on myself because of my intentions for “Elegy.”
From the third stanza onward, I shifted my focus to the bombing site and the victims. I wanted to evoke horror, distress, and injustice – everything I was feeling at that time – by describing the aftermath of the explosions, engaging the reader’s senses, and making candid observations while respecting the topic’s sensitive nature. I dared myself to answer questions such as “What would I have seen or done if I had been there?” and “What if I had been injured, or was comforting someone who had been injured?” Most of all, I wanted to end the poem on a compassionate note. Even though I didn’t see the carnage first-hand or haven’t lost a limb, I could still extend a helping hand and say, “I’m here if you need anything. You don’t have to go through this alone.”
Was “Elegy” harrowing to write? Absolutely. I actually dreaded the idea of writing the poem so much because of what I might vicariously experience that I put off drafting it for nearly a month. Finally, I realized the deeper meaning behind my motivation: I needed to own the existence of this poem as a responsibility, a means of contributing to the world at large. That latter bit is something I’ve always hoped to accomplish with my writings. Once I discovered this, I summoned the courage to put thought to paper, and let the words – and the tears – flow as freely as the Charles River.
Remember What Your Words Might Do for Others
But that’s what writers have to do sometimes. We have to put ourselves in our character’s place to know how to portray a situation or experience as honestly as possible, and sometimes we have to go through hell to do so. Writing allows us – no, it forces us – to explore every angle of humanity: its beauties, wonders, and joys; its darkness, brutality, and chaos. It might require us to say what no else dares to speak, wrap loving arms around crying strangers, and rip our souls open in the meantime. We may not have experienced the hardship or suffering first-hand, but such things are facts of life – and writers, more than anything, need to be truthful in their writing, even when the spark for that writing is compassion.
Yet, writers should always remember that there’s a chance their words might comfort, empower, or enlighten someone else. If I want my writings to be my contribution to society, I have to be willing to reach down that deep and make my soul bleed for a little while when such inspiration calls. And now, having done that with “Elegy,” I know I’m a stronger and braver writer for it.
I don’t know if any survivors or family members of victims of the Marathon bombings have read “Elegy.” Sometimes I wonder whether there’s a way to find out whether they have, or to at least make them aware of the poem. Maybe some of them wouldn’t want to, though, because of the memories and grief it might bring back to the surface. And that’s OK. It might be for the best that I maintain my distance as the poet. It’s not that I don’t care about their reactions. But more than that, I respect their privacy as human beings whose lives were forever changed by a savage act of violence and hatred. I’m proud and perfectly content with the fact that “Elegy” was published by Soul-Lit in the summer of 2013; and more importantly, I’m grateful I wrote it so the world could read it.
Have you written a poem, story, or other piece out of compassion and/or in reaction to current events? Have you read such a piece that has touched you in some way? Share your thoughts by commenting below.