Lit Counts: The Thing That Might Save Us

By Jennifer Wortman

I was going to use this space to tell you why literature counts. I’ve read many books this past year that I’ve loved, among them Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods, Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes, Elisa Albert’s After Birth. All these books matter to me, and they might matter to you, if you can stomach them—they’re all, in their way, very dark. We live in dark times, and literature can address what ails us like nothing else. But I’m not going to write about why literature counts. Because some things count more.

One thing that counts more is being a decent person, which I find elusive and hard. What does it mean, exactly, to be decent? How, precisely, do I do it? Conventional wisdom gives pat answers to these questions. Literature, perhaps, provides answers too, more complex ones. But I’m leery of drawing a neat equation between literature and virtue. Yes, literature can breed empathy for others and spark positive change. But it can also become an escape hatch, a way to hide from the world around us: I know this because I’ve used it that way for much of my life. Worse yet, belief in the power of literature can devolve into a naive elitism, the idea that if the “unschooled masses” (i.e., people whose politics I don’t share) just read more and read better and read the same things I do that all would be well.

One thing, perhaps, we all can agree on: all is not well. So how to proceed? When I find myself in most need of guidance, I turn to a book many wouldn’t consider literature: Start Where You Are, by Pema Chödrön. On the surface, it looks like a self-help book. But it’s really more of an anti-self-help book, full of gems like, “Affirmations are like screaming that you’re okay in order to overcome the whisper that you’re not.” And, “If it’s painful, you can learn to hold your seat and move closer to that pain.” Or, “Whenever you come up with a solid conclusion, let the rug be pulled out.” Why, in these difficult times, would I take comfort in a book that tells me to “move closer to that pain” and “let the rug be pulled out”? Because to do so, according to Chödrön, cultivates compassion, for others and self.


“True compassion,” Chödrön says, “does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.” It’s all too easy to lose sight of that kinship. There’s a famous 1960s photograph in which a girl inserts a flower into the barrel of a soldier’s gun. Chödrön reports, “The soldier who had been holding the gun—who later became a strong peace activist—said that he had never before experienced anything as aggressive as that young woman coming with her flower and making this big display.” I always read these lines with triumph. I’ve spent much of my life around people like that girl, and while I share many of their beliefs, I’ve grown weary of their grandstanding. The soldier’s bad experience confirms my aversion to their behavior and makes me feel good about myself. My knee-jerk conclusion: I am superior to the girl with the flower and to all like her.

flower photo

But if I sit with that triumph, really feel it, I notice something else: Uneasiness. Worry that the world isn’t always how I think it is. Shame that I can have trouble taking clear action. Fear of being judged or harmed for my lacks. I also might note my own tendency to make big displays, in different forms than the flower girl. When I make big displays, what do I seek? Typically attention, respect, love. What most of us want. Beneath that want is sorrow, a wound. I see the girl’s suffering, the soldier’s, and my own. And I can cultivate compassion for us all.

Most of the time, I don’t cultivate compassion for us all. It’s hard work, requiring clarity and gentleness, self-awareness without self-involvement, a process Chödrön describes much better than I can here. And frankly, I can think of a bunch of reasons why a touchy-feely goal like cultivating compassion shouldn’t take precedence right now, with so much at stake for so many. Sometimes, calls for compassion stand beside facile pleas to “think positive” and “send more light into the world.” You’ll get none of that from me.

But at the end of the day, I’m convinced that our greatest evils do in fact come from our failure, time after time, to realize our kinship with all beings. To be clear: Cultivating compassion does not mean cultivating passivity or submitting to those who aim to do you and others harm. But it does mean fighting the good fight with more wisdom, humanity, and grace. I’m not sure I can do it. I’m not sure we can do it. But it might be the only thing that can save us.

This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Jennifer Wortman teaches at Lighthouse and helps edit fiction for Colorado Review. Her work appears in North American Review, Confrontation, Massachusetts Review, PANK, Columbia Journal, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, and elsewhere.