The Close Enemies of Pity and Compassion: What’s the Difference?

This past week, I finally got around to reading Louise Penny’s novel The Cruelest Month. This is also the title of my first completed novel. When I first found out that the title was “taken,” I was a bit miffed. But after an embarrassingly long period of time, I got over it, laughed at my silliness, and read my first Penny novel. Loved it. So I’ve worked my way through her series.

In The Cruelest Month, psychologist Myrna is talking to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. While they are chatting about the various people in the town of Three Pines, she mentions an interesting phrase: the near enemy. Gamache is intrigued and asks her to explain.

“ ‘The near enemy. It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other’s sick, twisted.’ (. . . )

“ ‘There are three couplings,’ said Myrna, herself leaning forward now, and whispering though she didn’t know why. ‘Attachment masquerades as Love, Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.’”

–Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month, page 197

What’s the difference, Gamache asks. Myrna explains:

Compassion sees the needy person as an equal. Pity sees that same person as inferior.

This made me wonder how many of our charitable efforts are done from an attitude of superiority? Do we see the recipient as our equal or our inferior? Has pride crept into our hearts?

Years ago, I read a quote in a Donald Miller book. I can’t remember the exact wording, nor do I have the book anymore. But it went like this, “We all like to give to charity, but no one likes to be charity.”

Why? It’s humbling to be charity. Part of that is simply the human desire not to admit our own brokenness and inability to help ourselves.

But another part may be this: we sense that the charity-giver perceives himself as better than we are. They’re in the position of power (giving to fill a lack) versus our powerless position (having a lack that needs to be filled).

One’s full, the other’s empty. One is pitying the other.

Of course, the charity-giver may not perceive the other person that way. They may truly have compassion on us and view us as their equals. In my experience, the most compassionate people are ones who have been through seasons of brokenness and responded with honesty and open hearts, not denial and embittered spirits. This makes them aware that we are all equally broken, giver and receiver alike. There’s no room for pride before the throne of God.

Here’s the problem: from the outside, pity and compassion look the same. The prideful pity-giver and the humbled compassion-giver may both take the same actions: work at the soup kitchen, give a buck or two to the homeless guy, visit the bereaved, say a kind word to a dejected person. The difference lies within the heart.

photo by jclk8888,
photo by jclk8888,

The heart isn’t visible. The action is.

So—and I’ve been here—the recipient might feel suspicious of the charitable action. Once, a pastor went out of his way to talk to me while I stood on the group’s outskirts. I dismissed it as pity. He only felt sorry for me, I thought. He didn’t want to talk to me for me, but he felt that he had to because he’s a pastor!

Stop right here for a second. What was wrong here? My response of self-pity and bitterness. (Not to mention a warped way of looking at another person initiating a conversation with me.) At this point, the recipient (me) needed to work on my attitude. I couldn’t do anything about the other person’s attitude or actions, only my own.

Just because others show only pity for someone and view them as inferior doesn’t mean that person can’t have a meaningful and beautiful life. But living in self-pity and bitterness isn’t life and is anything but beautiful.

(Want a literary example? See the character of Agent Nicol in Penny’s Gamache series. Trust me, you do not want to be Agent Yvette Nicol.)

We’re only responsible for our own response.

If I’m the recipient of charity, then I can choose to respond with gratitude or bitterness. The attitude of the giver is not within my power.

If I’m the giver of charity, then I can choose to view the other person as my equal or my inferior. The response of the receiver isn’t within my power.

The results of one choice may be more obvious than the other. (That’s why the “close enemies” are pity and compassion, not gratitude and bitterness.) You’re more likely to be aware of your own bitter response than aware of your own pride and attitude of superiority.

Either way, it’s important to search our hearts. We’re all equals before God. Let’s use this knowledge to extend compassion to others, not pity.




Categories: attitude | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

Stories (and lives) that end well

photo on PEXELS

photo on PEXELS

In reading submissions for Ruminate, one of the more frustrating story failures is this: the poor ending.

  • No resolution. The major story question is never answered.
  • The deus ex machina solution. God or superhero or suddenly powerful figure appearing from nowhere drops a convenient solution on the seemingly insolvable problem.
  • The story that doesn’t want to end. There’s a resolution, the story questions are answered, and all is well in story-land, but then the author continues on. And on. And on. Depending on the length of the story, it could be five more paragraphs or five more pages or five more chapters before the author types “The End.”
  • The clichéd ending. The “whole world before them” ending has been done too often, as if everyone wants to pay homage to Paradise Lost without reading it. News flash: if you are reading my blog, then you are not John Milton. (And if you are J.M., please go back to quietly decaying in your grave, okay? You’ve ruffled my feminist feathers enough.)

Of the four problems, the lack of resolution issue sticks in my craw.  

Whenever I’m reading a particularly great submission, I’m half reading and half hoping that the author ends well. If she does, great. I can click “yes” without hesitation, if all else works. But if she doesn’t end well, I am frustrated.

I need to have the major conflict resolved in a satisfactory way, one that makes sense in the world of the story. I don’t have to like it. But I need that sense of closure. Or, if the lack of resolution is deliberate, I need to sense that this was a deliberate decision on the author’s part and not a failure to include the final page of the submission.

Over at Chip MacGregor’s blog, literary agent Erin Buterbaugh has begun a new series called “How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute.” She writes,

“(B)ut there has to be some kind of resolution (a “story” is defined at its most basic, after all, as having a beginning, middle and end), and  the reader does have to be left with the sense that the author is still in control of his universe and is fully aware of the lack of resolution rather than feeling like the author has been stringing them along and dumped them in the middle of nowhere without a map, or worse still, that the author has forgotten about the plot holes, unsolved mysteries, and unfinished subplots. The former feels like a con on the part of the author, and the latter like bad craftsmanship.”

So finishing well matters.

Isn’t this also true in life?

In 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul writes to his close friend Timothy,

 6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

I thought of these verses as I read Erin’s blog post. Paul was in prison. While he’d faced deadly perils before (floggings, shipwrecks, stoning, imprisonment), this time the end was certain: he would be executed. How had he lived his life?

Acts 20:24
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

1 Corinthians 9:25-26
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.

His one desire: to complete the race well.

How? By aiming toward that end and pressing on relentlessly.

There’s a certain inherent conflict in life. We all know death will come for each of us. For the Christian, from the time of justification, glorification is the certain end.

To use story terms, that conflict is resolved. The story question—will I go to heaven?—is answered. But just because that question is answered doesn’t make the process any less important. And the ending part of that process matters just as much as the beginning.

Think about this:

In a classic murder mystery, the reader expects the hero-detective (Adam Dalgliesh or Armand Gamache or whoever) to unmask the killer. Who is it? We don’t know. How will he figure it out? We don’t know that either. That’s why we keep reading.

But we wouldn’t keep reading if Gamache just gave up ten pages from the end of the novel. Threw up his hands, declared that justice didn’t matter, and that he really just wanted to sit down with a glass of wine and a good book and vegetate.

Or if he did aimless things that had nothing to do with the case: went to the beach or partied at the nightclub. He’d end up with a nice tan or a terrific hangover, but when we reached the last page, we still don’t know whodunit.

Talk about a failure to resolve story conflict. Talk about a bad ending.

If you’re familiar with either P.D. James’ Dalgliesh or Louise Penny’s Gamache, you know that neither man would do this. They’re Pauline in their zeal for justice and relentless pursuit of the killer. There’s no aimless air-boxing or treadmill-jogging.

They want the conflict resolved.

They want that answer.

They want to finish well.

And that’s how we should be in our lives. Take aim for the finish line, pursue it wholeheartedly, and cross that finish line to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Now that’s a good ending.


Categories: Christianity, writing | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

Framing the world

“When we think we are using language, language is using us. As linguist Dwight Bolinger put it (using a military metaphor), language is like a loaded gun: It can be fired intentionally but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally. The terms in which we talk about something shape the way we think about it—and even what we see.” –Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture, p.14

Maybe you’ve had this happen to you. You’re reading a book that makes you think in different terms than you normally do. It’s about gender or race, methods of dialogue or topics of debate, anything that seeks to categorize the world or break down preexisting categories of the world: you look up from the page and start seeing references to this topic everywhere. And as you read about the topic, that book and its terms influence how you view these new references.

A good example is what happened while I was reading The Argument Culture.

Tannen’s book talks about male/female roles in “aggressive” or “conflicted” behavior. Males tend to roughhouse, trade insults in their conflicts. Females form arguments by appearing to avoid arguments. (Obviously, this is simplification of a continuum of gender behaviors.)

Then, as I sat at my daughter’s gymnastics practice, I saw a strange thing.

A young boy, tween-aged or slightly younger, sat beside a woman, presumably his mother. He was roughhousing with her: grabbed her upper arm, twisted it, ran his fingers down her spine (tickling?). His mother allowed this, often punching, playfully, in return. When he grabbed her hair, she grabbed his. It was only when he slapped her arm that she put an end to it; the slap was loud enough that I heard it from several bleacher rows behind them in a loud gym facility.

The behavior struck me as odd.

First, an authority figure allowed this playful-but-aggressive touch from someone who was both old enough to know better and big enough to do serious damage.

Second—and this was the stranger part to me—was the gender and age differences. It was a hierarchical male-female pairing, with the female in the authoritative position.

  • If the roughhousing had been between two male equals (brothers, classmates), it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. I remember junior high boys being this way.
  • If it had been a brother-sister pairing (equal ages, different genders) I might’ve found it strange but not abnormal.
  • If it had been two equal females seems unlikely. Perhaps between sisters or close female friends in childhood, this might happen; I can’t see any adult females acting this way unless they were trying to do damage to the other woman.

But the mother-son dynamic struck me as bizarre. That a female authority figure wouldn’t tell him, no, you don’t treat adults this way, was baffling and disturbing.

But if I hadn’t been reading Tannen’s words about aggression and conflict in male and female behavior, would I have reacted by analyzing the encounter according to these terms?

Would I have characterized his behavior as aggressive? Would I have interpreted her return behavior as conflicted, telling him no, no, but laughing until he hurt her? Would I have noticed this at all, or merely been ticked off that they disturbed my reading time?

And perhaps my analysis of this mother-son dynamic wasn’t accurate. Had I tapped either person on the shoulder and said, “Hey, do you know what I see going on here?” perhaps they would have been startled to hear my description.

“It wasn’t like that at all!” they might’ve protested and substituted their own version(s), complete with different adjectives and verbs. He “tugged” her hair, not “yanked,” for example. Or given that all-purpose reason: it was just a joke! (The implication being that if I fail to understand the joke, the problem isn’t that the joke isn’t funny but that I don’t have a sense of humor.)

But my then-current thoughts had been formed by someone else’s terms. Accurately or not, those terms superimposed themselves upon my perception of the world around me. When I view the world within those terms and categories, it becomes a framing device: the world shifts to fit that frame.

My perception of the world, that is: the real world is still itself. Absolutes do exist, even when they are inconvenient for my personal desires or don’t fit neatly within my philosophical framework. I may be reading and thinking about zero gravity, but if I’m on planet Earth, that absolute law of gravity is reality. Saying that I can fly and jumping off a building won’t prove anything other than my delusional state of mind.

Everyone has presuppositions about the world. Often we can’t see them until we bump up against something that doesn’t quite fit. It startles us. I know I’ve run into these before, about things ranging from my inner psyche to God’s nature to racial perceptions to gender roles in marriage and church. These moments of impact (my experience hitting the wall of my framework—whamp, bam, ouch!) caused me to stumble back and see that wall (surely it wasn’t there a second ago, was it?) and reconsider things around me.

Ultimately, it leads to a choice: what do I do with this new knowledge?

Do I close my eyes and pretend that the reality doesn’t exist?

Do I open my eyes and consider whether my philosophical presuppositions are truthful?

Have those terms, the ones I’ve allowed to define the world, defined it accurately or inaccurately?

Are they still useful or do they misguide my view of the world and others around me? Are they harmful?

That’s why it’s important to use our categorizing terms carefully.



Categories: attitude, relationships | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Starting a new novel

I shared on Monday how my grandfather died last week and that the burial was that morning. (Thank you for all the sympathy, by the way. I really appreciate it.) There’s a bit of a strange story tied to all of this.

Recently, I had started a new novel. Last Monday, I stopped work. It was horrible. Everything was going wrong, nothing was going right, and every attempt to correct the improbable parts of the plot (and there were many) made things worse. I wrote in my writer’s journal, “Is this like that 2nd novel, pointless & pathetic?” Yes.

I was in despair. More journal angst: I can’t do this, I told God, I can’t do this, it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, the only thing I have—I should just give up. . . . (Who, me? Melodramatic? No way.)

I knew I wanted to write about race, specifically a mixed race romantic relationship. But how?

I sat on my sofa, clutching a pillow and sobbing, and an image came to mind. It was a childhood memory, one of my first. Out of concern for family privacy and not wanting to hurt those involved, I’ve never discussed it online. Nor will I now.

But my grandfather was a pivotal figure in the situation. And the situation, even though I was not directly involved, impacted my life and how I viewed relationships, and led me to believe that I could destroy my family by making one wrong choice. Or even a choice that others perceived as wrong, even if it was morally neutral or good.

From that childhood memory, a story formed in my mind. A people-pleasing girl who fears destroying her family, a bigoted grandfather who is overly-involved in her life, a budding romance with a boy of a different race . . .

This story scared me. It was too autobiographical, even if no one else realized it (but family would realize, I knew.) Still, what did I have to lose? I started writing.

The next morning, while I was working on the new novel, my mother called: my grandfather had died the previous night.

There’s still much that was unresolved from the childhood situation, things that carried over through my teens and college years. Especially college. In the past few months, all my college issues have come crashing down over me. I spent my twenties dealing with misdiagnosed and then newly diagnosed mental illness.

Now I get to deal with the rest of it: finding my voice, realizing that I’m equal to men, knowing how to be assertive and handle conflict, things like that.

All the things my young protagonist wrestles with in my novel.

As I drove to pick up my daughters, I was thinking about the novel. Suddenly, I could hear my protagonist. Not audibly. In my head, I heard my character and knew her, knew how she would tell her story, knew how to frame her story. I stopped in the carpool line, grabbed my writer’s journal, and wrote the first few hundred words before they disappeared amidst the chaos of kids’ homework and school information and everything that accompanies my daughters’ arrival home.

This book is writing itself.

In some strange way, I think that God is giving me the opportunity to resolve my issues through writing this novel. Maybe. We’ll see.

Other writers, have you ever had anything like this happen to you?

Categories: writing | 10 Comments

What the Book of Job Really Means

Laura Droege:

My grandfather died last week, and I will be attending his burial this morning. (We’re holding a formal memorial service later, probably in late April, when more family can attend.) So in lieu of posting something of mine, I’m reblogging this post from Tim Fall. As someone who questions God on a semi-regular basis, I found his thoughts on the book of Job refreshing and comforting. I hope you will, too.

Originally posted on Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another:

I can’t say I know all about the Book of Job, but I think I know a bit about it and here’s one thing I know:

The Book of Job reveals God’s grace.

Some will dispute this, saying the book instead reveals a cruel God who uses Job as a pawn in a game played between God and Satan. Here’s how they might characterize the opening scenes: God asks Satan where he’s been lately, Satan says he’s been out cruising through the world here and there, and God asks if Satan has happened upon Job.

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1703–1765) (Wikimedia) Satan Before the Lord,
Corrado Giaquinto (1703–1765)

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8.)

Job is described as a man who cared for his…

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But Mozart was a prodigy! (& other myths that might make you throw in the towel)

Has this cat gotten 10,000 hours of singing practice yet?  (Photo: Jonraguine1999, morgueFile)

Has this kitten gotten 10,000 hours of singing practice yet? (Photo: Jonraguine1999, morgueFile)

If you’re like me and you’ve been working at developing a skill (such as writing) for any length of time, you’re bound to look up and see all the people who are highly accomplished at this skill, and feel envious.

I walk into bookstores and it’s almost more than I can bear. All those books! Written by someone else! Not a single title with your name on the cover.

(For a while, when I was racking up rejections for The Cruelest Month, I didn’t go to bookstores at all. It was too painful.)

. . . And if you’re like me, you read a masterpiece and feel tempted to bang your head on the table because you simply know that you’ll never, ever, in a hundred million, billion years, be able to write something that marvelous. Marvelous? You’ll barely be able to crack mediocre.

. . . And if you’re like me, you look at the author’s photograph. If the author is old, you’re relieved. If the author looks like one of those wonderful “child prodigies” who write and publish books while still in the young whippersnapper stage of life, you feel overwhelmed with despair. They’ve been zapped with miraculous abilities. They’re flying around in a super-tight costume that says “SuperWriter” on the front, zooming from one book signing to another, making a layover so Oprah can interview them.

. . . And if you’re nodding your head, you should be profoundly disturbed that you’re this much like me.

But you can also take heart. I’ve read a book that will help put this in perspective. (C’mon, you knew I would find a book to discuss, right?)

Bounce, by Matthew Syed, is about success: the science behind success. He focuses on athletes—he’s a former tennis table world champ himself—but the principles are applicable to many fields. His approach reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, but from a different angle. He also affirms Gladwell’s famous idea that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert. There were many intriguing ideas, but here’s one that floored me:

There really are no such things as child prodigies.

But what about—?!

I know what you’re thinking, but, no, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not an exception to the 10,000 hour rule.

His father, a composer and highly accomplished pedagogue, was interested in how to teach music to children. He was also a domineering father who started Wolfgang’s intense music training when the boy was three. One historian believes that young W had racked up some 6,000 hours of intense, focused practice by the time he was six.

By the time W composed his first masterpiece, he had more than ten thousand hours of playing time, and had racked up thousands of hours of composition time. (His first few compositions were arrangements of other people’s music and contain no or little original work.)

Compare his achievements at twenty-one to

other twenty-one-year old pianists,

and W looks like a child prodigy.


Compare his achievements to

other dedicated, equally gifted musicians who have practiced and composed

for the same number of hours,

and his achievements don’t look so surprising or startling.

So. Remember my theoretical young whippersnapper who wrote a novel? We can make some educated assumptions.

First, he or she had a parent who pushed them from an early age and provided the opportunity for that child to receive good instruction. It helps to have someone drive you to sports practice or piano lessons when you’re five, or to pay for art lessons from a good instructor or writing feedback from a knowledgeable editor when you’re seven. Not every parent has the time or means to do that.

Second, Mom and Dad granted the child the time to practice, even when it took away from other activities. No well-rounded scholar-athlete-humanitarian-artist with a roster of activities a mile long. No, thank you, my child can be obsessed with only one thing at a time!

Again, not every parent is willing to shove aside the notion of having a well-rounded child.

Nor is every parent willing to allow the child to neglect schoolwork in favor of writing a novel, or neglect chores in favor of sports training. (I’m not saying that a child couldn’t do both, but energy levels will be a factor. Intense, concentrated practice on any one task consumes a lot of energy.)

Nor am I saying this is healthy! Just this week, a mom told me about a girl at her daughter’s gymnastics facility. The child is homeschooled so she can practice gymnastics for fifteen hours a week. That’s at the gym. At home, the child practices and trains for another eighteen hours a week. That’s thirty-three hours of dedicated practice a week! How old is this girl?


My response: WHAT?!

Third, the training was in an area where the child was already gifted and already interested. Not every child who is trained like Mozart will end up being Mozart, Junior. Just like not every devoted athlete will end up as a pro, make the Olympic team, or even get a college scholarship. Innate talent does play a role. (And if the child isn’t interested, don’t bother.)

Fourth, look at the debut novel of this young whippersnapper and compare it to other debut novels. Is it really an impressive novel? Or is it impressive mostly because of the author’s age? Chances are, it’s not the best work this author will produce. Even my beloved Melville had to write Typee, Omoo, and Mardi before he cracked out Moby-Dick. While Typee was a bestseller, it wasn’t a masterpiece.

So if you’re struggling (like I am) not to be jealous of that young whippersnapper-writer, remember that.

And those masterpieces, the ones that make you cry from their beauty and craftsmanship—those did not happen overnight. They weren’t written in a week or a year or sometimes even in a decade. They were written through a life dedicated to finding the right words, in the right combination, and pinned on paper at the right moment.

Not all of us who dream of writing a masterpiece will do so. But we can be willing to take the time to write and fail, over and over, until we have used up every bit of our gift, the ones God gives us, and used it well.

Keep going.

Categories: books/reading, Bounce by Matthew Syed, envy, success, ten thousand hour rule | Tags: , | 14 Comments

Strong Children

Laura Droege:

Wonderful quote from a person who definitely knew a thing or two about being broken (in his case, by slavery).

Originally posted on A Momma's View:

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. – Frederick Douglass

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Intersexuality: a problem with gender binaries

The problem with binaries is that they often don’t exist where we think they do. We want them to exist; it’s easier to divide the world into halves, than, say, thirds or fifths or (heaven forbid) admit that there are some shades of gray.

Right/Wrong. (What about things that are the exceptions to the rule?)

Conservative/Liberal. (What about moderates?)

Male/Female. (What about people who are intersex?)


After reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex, I’ve been thinking about the last binary quite a bit.

A book like this blows apart traditional assumptions about gender.

  • How do you classify an intersex person?
  • Do you consider this person as male or female?
  • Upon what basis: external genitalia, internal genitalia, chromosomal patterns, outward appearance, self-identification, upbringing?
  • What if those conflict with one another—some aspects seem traditionally “male” and others “female”?
  • (Who decided those traditions, anyway?)

Cal, the narrator of Middlesex, has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. At birth, he appears female. He doesn’t feel out of place in the “female” world of his all-girls school, though he is bewildered by his physical attraction to “other” females. But once he hits adolescence, a surprising thing happens: nothing.

No period.

No breasts.

Nothing but genitalia with an appearance that increasingly distresses Cal (then Callie).

When his parents drag him to see a specialist at the Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic, the doctor advises them to have Cal injected with hormones and operated on so he will appear female.

So easy. No one will know. After all, the doctor reasons, he’s been raised female and (thanks to a bit of lying from Cal about his personal experiences) feels female inside. The doctor doesn’t bother to inform the parents that their child is genetically male; that’s too hard for parents to handle. His solution is the best one.

Cal feels otherwise.

This is a novel. But this situation does happen in the real world, so it’s worth discussing.

Play a pastor’s role for a moment. A couple in your congregation have a child. The genitalia are ambiguous. Doctors are giving them conflicting advice. Operate? Let the child develop naturally? It’s a confusing realm, filled with more questions than certainties. They want your advice.

What do you tell these parents?

  • If you advise them to let the child develop naturally, allowing for ambiguity in the gender-department, are you prepared for how to handle the confusion among workers, peers, other parents?
  • If you advise them to go the fix-it route, what will you do if the child later says he/she self-identifies with the other gender? What then?

Or say the case is more like Cal’s. The child appears one gender. She’s happy enough in nursery and elementary school, playing with the “girl” toys, being friends with the other girls, doing the girls-only activities the children’s minister plans, and then hits adolescence. It’s now apparent something isn’t quite normal. The family discovers this sweet little girl is genetically male. How do you handle this? How does your congregation handle it?

  • Will you allow the boy (the one you’ve always thought a girl!) to use the men’s restroom or go on a boys-only camp out?
  • What if the child still clings to a female identity? What then?
  • How do you help this family and especially this child adjust to this new knowledge?
  • How do you influence the congregation (particularly the child’s peers) to accept and not ridicule, to love and respect, not judge? (There are always judgmental people, and they won’t care if disordered chromosomes are the cause for the intersexuality.)

What if this same person—comfortable, possibly, with being intersex, or at least accustomed to it—came to your congregation as an adult? How do you handle this ambiguity? It’s probably most problematic in a complementarian church setting, where the church “roles” are divided into male-only and female-only categories.

  • Can he stand for election as elder or deacon?
  • Can she lead the women’s ministry?
  • Do you feel threatened by a person who doesn’t fit into the male/female binary and wish he or she would latch onto another congregation and not upset yours?

Apply the same questions to any person in these situations. Other parents. A peer. A teacher. An average pew-dweller.

The answers aren’t as clear cut as you’d like, are they? A little unsettling, right?

In my opinion, that’s a mark of a good book or a good question: it unsettles me.

Middlesex did that, more than once, and these questions definitely cause me to examine my own attitudes toward gender identity and sexuality. I’m definitely female, so there’s no way I can empathize with intersexuality on an experiential level. So if I face any of the above situations, what is my role?

I can hear some conservative Christians, shuffling in the pews, intone, “Our job is to help them have a healthy gender identity.”

To which I say: “Bullcrap. You don’t even know what that would be, do you?”

Our job is this:

To treat everyone with respect and dignity.


To encourage others to do the same.

That’s the big picture. The details of the nitty-gritty are harder, and I think they’d have to be taken as they come. A book like Middlesex can help, not with easy solutions—those are in short supply in Eugenides’ novel—but with creating empathy for those in this situation. When we have empathy for another human being, it is easier to see that they are more than just their genitalia or sexuality or any other single factor.

They are human, just like us.

Complex, just like us.

Made by God, just like us.

And God doesn’t make mistakes. Always remember that. 

Categories: books/reading, gender, relationships | Tags: , , | 23 Comments

If you don’t create art, you shouldn’t critique it

“Don’t critique unless you create.”

I read this statement on Nick McDonald’s scribblepreach blog recently, and in general, I think it’s true. He was discussing Christian movies, but I think the principle can be broadened to include all types of art, from novels and visual art forms to movies and music.

Here’s why. It’s easy to see flaws in a piece of art and criticize. The characters are stereotyped. The song is derivative of other, better works. This movie is unoriginal. My three-year-old can paint better than that! Etc.

But do you really know what goes into a novel? Do you know how to reveal a character’s personality through dialogue and action, description and reactions (both internal and external)? Do you know how to tell a story; not just set up a series of events that happen one after the other with no cause-effect relationship, but tell a story?

If you have never written fiction, you don’t know.

It’s an entirely different thing to be able to create a work that lives up to your standards. It’s difficult. Blood, toil, tears, and sweat—the whole Churchillian bit. What he had to offer Britain, and what artists have to offer in the creation of their art.

It’s not a fun hobby. It’s a serious job.


I thought about this as I read the criticism of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. It revolves around a young girl who discovers that she is genetically male (intersex), and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

(It’s a riveting read: simultaneously a family saga and a coming of age story, literary and a page-turner, a tale of immigration and the American dream, racial conflict in Detroit and gender conflict in society and a young person’s psyche. In other words, it’s a lot like Cal, the narrator, who is both male and female, yet not comfortable in either category. I plan to write another blog post about it.)

Most of the criticism was positive. Yet there were a sizable minority that had reservations about the book’s depiction of intersex people, namely, some activists. Not all, but some criticized:

  • the use of the term “hermaphrodite” (in reference to the Greek myth).
  • Cal not being involved in intersex activism as an adult.
  • the use of a Greek family, incest, and intermarriage among close relatives as the reasons for Cal’s chromosomal disorder (the cause for his intersexuality).

Why Greeks? Why incest? How dare he use that term—it’s not the proper one!

Were these legitimate concerns? Sure. I’m not trying to knock these queer activists for being concerned about them. * But . . .

How many of these critics have tried to write a novel? If they have, was it any good? Did it meet their own standards of excellence?

It reminded me of an experience I had while writing my first novel, The Cruelest Month. I was posting it, chapter by chapter, on an online writing review site, where any member could comment.

About halfway through the novel, the young protagonist, Lucy, is diagnosed with bipolar I. She’s had a brief psychotic break, displays all the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and admits to her parents that this has led to some risky sexual behavior (among other things). Soon she’s in a psychiatrist’s office. The evidence is compelling—family history of mental illness and behavior that meets the DSM-IV criteria—and he begins her regimen of medicines and counseling.

One reviewer stated that she herself was bipolar and it wasn’t realistic for Lucy to accept her diagnosis so quickly. “She needs to be in denial and refuse to take meds!” this woman claimed.

But as the author, I knew a few things this woman didn’t. I knew my character; I knew what was coming for her and her family (including later struggles with the medicines); and I knew this: at this point in the book, Lucy being in denial would serve no purpose for the story. None. I’d be wasting precious words. I needed her to quickly accept the diagnosis so I could get on with the story.

Was that unrealistic? Do most bipolars struggle with accepting their diagnosis? Maybe.

But I was in a Catch-22.


Go in one direction and veer from even one statistically probable circumstance, and you’ll be accused of being unrealistic.



Go in the other direction and stick with every probable circumstance, meet every single criterion, make every single character trait fit with the most statistically likely thing for that particular group, and what do you end up with? A stereotype.

I’m betting that’s the same dilemma Eugenides faced.

He didn’t thoughtlessly accept stereotypes that perpetuate stigma or misconceptions about being intersex. Eugenides’ reasons for his artistic choices were well-considered—it took him nine years to write the book—and it boils down to this: he was writing about a character who was very different than him, so he used what he knew from personal experience whenever possible. Thus he used Greek customs (including the frequent intermarriage in rural, isolated parts of Greece years ago), a Detroit upbringing, and mythology, among other things. Cal as a male adult even looks like Eugenides. Makes sense to me.

It gave depth to Cal’s character, family history, and upbringing that otherwise might not have been there. In short, it served the story.

As writers, we make choices. Every choice we make has to serve the story. Some of them are hard. Am I being realistic when thus-and-such happens? Am I stereotyping a group of people? Is this destroying or perpetuating stigma? And, always, does this serve the story well? Is this any good?

These are questions I’ve asked about my depictions of characters, people ranging from conservative Christian women to pimps to bipolar patients to rapists to African-American teenage boys to wedding caterers. I’m sure many other writers do, too.

Until you’ve done the work of making those hard choices, you can’t know what’s involved in those decisions. You can’t understand the experience of writing fiction, which is different from the experience of writing non-fiction or critiques of fiction.

If you’ve written fiction, even as an amateur or dabbler, please, feel free to constructively criticize. My guess, though, is that you’ll be more sympathetic and grant the author more freedom in making those hard choices.


Because you’ve been there.

 *Please note that these critics were in the minority. The book was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award (for exploration of LGBT themes), and the majority of reviews in the intersex and queer press were positive.  

Categories: books/reading, writing | Tags: , , , | 15 Comments

“Ain’t I a Woman?” (video)

This was too awesome not to share. Actress Nkechi reenacts Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech for a TEDx talk.

(I’m hoping that I’m not violating copyright. The video gave the option to share on various social media sites, including Blogger; so hopefully I’m in the clear.) 

Categories: gender, race | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

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