“What is being a Catholic like?”
This is a question that I have heard plenty of times, frequently from people who I have met online. They scratch their heads at why I believe what I believe, and assume that it means many things about me. They assume that I support the Catholic Church’s past actions to protect paedophiles. They assume that I somehow support the Westboro Baptist Church, not understanding the relationship between the words Christian and Catholic. The list could go on.
This comes from a place of ignorance. Not wilful, necessarily, but ignorance nonetheless. People are often happy to listen as I explain where I stand on a number of contentious issues, and this gives them something that I consider one of the most valuable commodities in the world – Understanding. Not understanding of Catholicism necessarily, but understanding related to a part of what makes me who I am.
Through these origins the original meaning has been more or less maintained, but the particular definition I am speaking of is ‘to be aware of the meaning of’.
Two sentences in particular that we tend to use the most are “Do you understand?” or “I understand.” Something that I have often believed, however, is that many people lack the very understanding that they suppose or presume others to have.
This is a matter of contention for many people, as human beings can understand one another’s situations to varying degrees. As writers, we find that in the quest of writing a story or a poem we have great demands placed on us, related to the nature of understanding.
To demonstrate this idea, I will use the example of myself. I am a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male. It is not unreasonable to think that I would fairly easily understand the context of a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male. I am also capable of similar (but not necessarily equivalent) levels of understanding with a black, heterosexual, cisgendered male, or a white, homosexual, cisgendered male. This is because I am not greatly separated in terms of personal context (at least in this simplistic example).
If I wish to write about someone far-removed from my context, I will have to embark upon a journey of understanding, to try and imagine situations different from my own. The more removed from my own context I write, the more difficult it will be (or the more effort that I need to devote).
This is something that, I would think, all writers are cognizant of on some level. For example, as a young writer I quickly came to understand that writing from the perspective of a female character was somewhat alien to me.
I should of course hasten to point out that the examples given above are not perfect. This completely ignores a vast array of other contextual factors that can vastly change one’s perspective of the world. Age, income, social class, education, location, language are just some of these.
So if it’s so complicated to do, why bother worrying? Why not get on with it, write it your own way and damn the criticism? It’s true that we write in a universe that is partially or entirely our own. We are the creative deities within our work and have license to shape things as we wish.
Understanding itself is something that everyone, not just writers, should try to understand. It is one thing to recognise the potential tension and continue with one’s work, but it’s another entirely to push on in ignorance.
At best, you will produce something that is unrealistic in a way that you didn’t quite intend. At worst, you will sabotage your own work, or even your own career. Understanding often only costs a little time and a little patience. It is relatively inexpensive, considering how much there is to gain.
If there’s one thing that I want for you to take away from reading this post, it is this: think about the circumstances you are placing your characters in. It is so important to research them, ask for second opinions, and listen to them. It’s impossible to ever fully understand a personal context other than your own (even if you get that far), but there is no shame in doing your best to get close.
So when someone tells you that you don’t understand, you need to ask them (and yourself): “What will make me understand?”