slipping into the skin of another

June is a month of parties, it seems, and I think my visitor believes that not only is life picture perfect but an endless stream of garden parties. Trays of colorful and delicious foods, sparkling lemonade, lush green grass and shimmery pools.

frederic poirot via flickr

Soon I will balance this with time in the city whose sounds and smells are so very different, whose faces are of a thousand shades and lined with a multiplication to the nth power of expressions, of lives lived. Perfection is not our reality and it should not be hers.

She doesn’t see what lies beneath, of course, but only the smiles and politeness, the way people lean close with intention and laugh as they converse, echoing the children’s cries of glee. Reality for her is limited to what is before her eyes. Our realities are equally unrealistic, if indeed there is such a thing at all. Interview a dozen bystanders and each will adamantly describe a dozen truths.

How does one get deeper? We seek in travel that depth of experience, that immersive dissolution of self into other. Sometimes we think we’ve achieved it, but it is merely a subjective illusion, for it is impossible unless our eyes are the same and our veins pulse with the same rhythm. There are infinite others, each with his or her reality.

There is, however, a shortcut, a quick path which cuts through the fluffy clouds where all is well and slips into the veins and to the heart. It’s not something you seek out, but instead just happens. Fates collide and you are present to share a death or a birth, a moment of utter joy or utter despair, the coming together or pulling apart, and you are, in a way intrinsically bound. Those are the moments when the curtain is drawn, when the smiling faces are stripped of their desire to present what is best and can only present what is.

The best writers can paint with their words a reality that through a silent osmosis becomes our own. Like alchemists they transform us so that we become, if only for a few pages or chapters, another, adopting their thoughts, their emotions, living their lives. We are privy to their internal monologue, to even their darkest thoughts, hovering as long as we (or the author) allows, freed of our own selves so colored by judgment and bias.

Years ago I read a short story in The New Yorker whose main character pulled me into his head. He was perhaps the most repulsive and evil person one might ever imagine, yet by the end of the story I could see things through his eyes, understand why he did the things he did. He haunts me still, yet I can’t bear to think of reading the story again.

It is far easier to empathize with a character who resembles us, to experience through them thoughts or emotions we know, or wish to know. We all want to lose ourselves in the characters we choose. What is brilliant is when the author (or director, or painter, or composer) becomes the one who chooses, pulling us in ways we neither imagined nor wished to go.

Literature and art are cyphers which unlock for us other realities, which allow us to slip into the skin of another, to see beneath the surface.

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