Certain words and phrases fascinate me and send me off on a thinking trip that lasts all day long. The above phrase did it for me today. This phrase was waiting for me in my Feedblitz email update with a post from Think Christian.
I linked over to the original post being referred to and enjoyed reading Toddled Dredge’s take on When a Woman Reads Pilgrim’s Progress. There were a lot of thought provoking things in the post that my mind could have tripped out on. But the trail I went down was that of “code switching.”
Women have always managed a kind of code-switching with literature. Women seem better able to see themselves in male characters than men can see themselves in female characters. It is probably the inevitable result of literary history. More writers were men, writing male characters, and if women were going to read, they had to be able to identify with a male character. Men have had less practice at this, simply because circumstances have not required it.
I understand the concept, but I don’t know if I agree that one gender is better at it than the other (the author of the original post suggests that women may be becoming less adept at code switching these days, leveling the gender playing field of code switching.) I just know that, for whatever reason, code switching is something I do. And not just in stories about men. I identify with Frog in Frog and Toad. Owl of Owl at Home is so much like me (or I like him) that I asked me counselor to read the book just to understand me better. I laugh at rabbit in The Cow Buzzed (one of my absolute favorite children’s books–if you ever find a cheap used copy for sale, PLEASE let me know!) because he is so much like me. I identify with Sloth’s delayed and wordy response to all the creatures who have been misunderstanding him in “Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, said the Sloth.
Whatever I read, I connect to the characters. I not only learn from them–I see the connections with my own life and applications to my own life. I love it that I can end a book feeling like (1) I’ve been understood (even the author will never meet me, to have someone create a story with such insight into aspects of my life that are hard to put into words makes me feel understood), and (2) I understand people who are different from me a bit better.
It has become a bit of a joke among my friends how eclectically I read. And even more of a joke how, no matter what I read, I find something in the story that connects to my own life. It might look self-centered, like everything revolves around and connects back to me. But how I experience it is that every connection I make with someone or some group that I would have thought of as different, makes me LESS wrapped up in myself and more celebratory of connecting to and understanding others.
I read a book by a surgeon (better, by Atul Gawande, M.D.) and am delighted to see connections with my life and things I think about. It makes me appreciate doctors and how they operate (oops, not the literal “operate”; the “function” kind!)
I read The Gift of Pain, by Dr. Paul Brand, and connect to the struggles that people with leprosy face. Not only am I moved to compassion, but I love learning from them–seeing connections to my own life, which help me understand their situation, but also think about my situation in different ways. I appreciate hearing the stories through the eyes of a doctor and being able to connect to his challenges and the ways he overcame them. Some things I read and think, “I could never do or be like that, but I love understanding how he did that and celebrating that he could and did accomplish such and such.” Other things I read and think, “Wow, I can see how that connects to my life and that gives me an idea I could try in a different situation.” Or, by connecting to real people through his stories, I’m challenged to consider how I dehumanize and look down on certain people who are “different”, so I can begin to make changes in how I talk or act.
I read Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama, and as I connect with the various characters, I feel their pain deeply in a way that helps me forget about my own for a moment and brings perspective to my suffering for even longer than a moment. I don’t own the corner on suffering and I remember that as I enter into another person’s pain by the means of “code switching”. (Am I using this phrase correctly? Well, if not, I am still glad for this line of thinking prompted by the phrase!) In Women of the Silk, I am drawn towards understanding (that I don’t want) for the father, who I just want to despise. That understanding doesn’t change how wrong I think what he did is, but it does make me pull back a step and see connections between him and me. I can’t help but feel his pain and understand it. It doesn’t matter that he’s a man. It doesn’t matter that he’s Chinese. The author, in my opinion, is good at helping me see and feel each character and look at things from that person’s perspective, even though their lives are outwardly so totally different from mine. (Her book The Samurai’s Garden impacted me the same way.)
When I read Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet, I’m thrilled to understand autism a bit better because of connections I see to my own life. I’m neither autistic nor a genius, but by reading a book by someone who lives in the context of those realities, I can no longer easy categorize people with autism as totally different from me, in a category of “them” (meaning “us” vs. “them”, where “them” is a category of people I can talk about patronizingly and feel better about myself because I’m not like “them”……)
I once read an article written by a therapist who had battled Disassociative Identity Disorder. Entering into her world, I couldn’t put myself on one side of a line of emotional health and me “safely” on the other. Instead, by reading about things from her perspective, I gained insight into a struggle in my own life. Outwardly the struggle might have seemed totally different, but, inwardly as I identified with her, I not only felt a connection, but out of that connection came application to my own life.
Do I identify with almost every person (and animal) I read about, because I’m a woman, or is it because “empathy” is one of my strengths (and incidentally, also a weakness that sometimes feels like it borders on a curse)? Is the ability to code switch a personality trait? Something my Mom nurtured in me? A gender thing? Or some neurotic, hyper-identification “sickness” in me? (Ha! I had to add that, because I find that sometimes the things I like most about myself are the things that other people think are my biggest “problems” It’s fun sometimes to by intentional about that and come up with a “neurosis” explanation for things I do before it’s given to me as a label!)
For me, if I’m going to read, I have to be able to identify with a person from another culture or a person with a disease or a person in a different profession from mine or a person with mental illness or a person with a handicap or a person of a different socioeconomic class or a person from a different religion or a person of a different gender than mine or even with an animal (real or pretend 🙂 )…
Seldom do I read a book where some serious code switching is not necessary (assuming I’m understanding and using the phrase “code switching” correctly.) And that is part of why I love reading: Being able to see and understand people from perspectives I never would have conjured up on my own. Being able to identify with people who seem so different from me. I can’t tell you how many times something I’ve read has stretched my brain and added new cognitive domains so that, at some later point, I’ve ended up being able to understand a “real” person better and connect to them in lovely ways because of something I read and identified with.
Because I have been forced to think about a different perspective ahead of time without all the social pressures that stress out my introverted self, I can more easily connect to and interact with people who, previously, I might have written off as impossibly different. I’m not saying I do this perfectly or consistently, but being able to identify with authors and characters in books helps a lot.
Am I wandering in circles with this post? Here at the end of my wordy mental rambling, I’m wondering which comes first: the ability to code switch, which helps me read and enjoy a variety of books? Or reading and enjoying a wide variety of books, which makes it easier to code switch?