August 9, 2016 Daniel

Modern Compassion: Or What I’m Learning from Reading Emma Straub

It’s hard to find a list of summer beach reads without Modern Lovers, the new book from Emma Straub, on it.

Her books find their way on these lists because they aren’t dense, feature family drama combined with romance, and you can read them over the course of a vacation or even a weekend if you can avoid the television and other distractions.

(If you are interested in reviews of Modern Lovers, you can find one here. You can also find my take on this book and other books for the summer here.)

But to put these books in the same categories as some others on these lists is to miss something profound and important.  That’s because Modern Lovers – as well as Straub’s last book, The Vacationers – is a story that has something to teach us.

In Straub’s stories we read about families and characters who are far from simple and miles from whole. Instead, these are stories of broken and complicated people who, like most of us, would be well served by time in a chair across from a therapist, counselor or religious professional. I can think of a couple of characters in these stories who might exhaust the wisdom of all three.

They make stupid mistakes.  They cheat on their spouses and aren’t sure if they wouldn’t do it over again if given the chance. Their past still overwhelms their present. They worry about messing up their kids. They commit to decisions that could be described as naive at best and foolish at worst. They are looking for a direction for their lives but more often than not let their lives simply happen to them. They know they need to change, but they aren’t sure if they really can or even want to.

That, of course, isn’t unique, both in writing stories and in living life. Here’s what is – Emma Straub has a gift for telling the stories of these messed up characters and dysfunctional families with kindness and compassion.

These characters might have problems and they might make things worse for themselves, but there’s an affection and a love for them from their creator that jumps off the page.

Lesser and more cynical stories are written with the voices and words of judgment and disdain. But that’s not what you find in these books – no, this is so much better.

These stories remind us that immaturity and failings are not definitive. They remind us that we are more than the sum of our bad choices and major missteps. They remind us that we are more than our worst moments, more than character flaws and more than the secrets we desperately try to keep hidden but have a suspicion won’t stay buried forever.

In short, these are stories of grace and stories of hope.

This is a word we need for the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Our skill in analysis of the other is only surpassed by our willingness to inflict that analysis to hurt and harm. Our ability to consume the news in the ways and with the interpretations we prefer convince us that the solution to all our problems is for our enemies and those we oppose (often one and the same) to become less stupid, less mean, less morally suspect, less foolish, and less prone to mistakes. This leads to anger and exhaustion, which leads us to miss so much good stuff.

It’s also a word we need more than just when we watch and talk about the news. Those of us gripped by perfectionism know what its like to be critical – and not just of those who are different than us. Instead, we are well versed in bearing the brunt of our own searing analysis. We are no strangers to inflicting pain and heartbreak on ourselves for the less than wise decisions we have made, the mistakes we can’t let go of, the ways we will never be good enough, and for all the times we have failed to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  This, of course, has plenty of consequences too.

In a world full of analysis and experts and way too many mean people, what we need more of are guides and teachers of kindness.  We need stories that show us how to see the power of the light especially when the darkness seems so strong. We need writers who can teach us how to be compassionate with one another and ourselves. We need people who bring words that remind us that failure doesn’t have to stop us from becoming beautiful people who live meaningful lives. We need men and women who can inspire us to follow a path that moves us beyond criticism and judgment and instead towards affirmation and kindness.

So, sure you can call these books beach reads.  But a better description would be to say that Emma Straub’s fiction should be required reading in a class on modern compassion.

That, of course, is a class we all should take.

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