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Monday, December 31, 2018

Where Do You Draw "The Line"? Considering Empathy

I've tried to write and rewrite this post so many times, and I've finally come to the conclusion that the best approach is a simplistic approach. I have literally cut paragraphs and paragraphs of ideas and tangents from what you see now. (Maybe I'll use those for other articles.) And this was meant to go up for Christmas Eve, but I was too busy enjoying the holiday. And it may not be a post for everyone reading. In fact, for that reason I almost didn't post it all, but then I thought it might be helpful to someone out there.

But today I want to talk about a subject that every once in a while, I see writers stress over.

Which is, where do you draw "the line" in writing?

Do you write that swear word? Do you not write that swear word?

Do you have that character have an addiction? Not have an addiction?

In the past, I have done multiple posts that speak to such things, on how and when or whether to use them, such as this post on profanity, and this other one about why we need stories about dark things

I'm tempted to dive deeper into this topic, but since I've had so much trouble writing this post, I promised I'd keep it simple.

Look, it's impossible to write a good story with perfect people.

And if you did, not only would it be boring, but there would be no growth. In fact, there would probably be no value. Because what is there to learn and gain?

Like many writers, I have sometimes wondered where to draw "the line." In the writing world, it can quickly become clear that the answer is not always obvious. For one, the same content can be rendered in completely different ways, with different messages and tones, different levels of "graphic-ness."

Where do you draw the line?

I'm afraid I can't give you an exact answer because an important factor, in addition to your audience and genre, is you. What are you comfortable with? What are you too uncomfortable to write? What is your purpose for including said content? (Or maybe you feel you have no limits.)

However, I want to share a realization I had a few of months ago that might be helpful (and again, it's simplified).

Years ago, I read a study that showed that those who read are more empathetic than others.

Isn't that wonderful?

Are there many other qualities that embody love better? I'd argue there are few.

One of the most beautiful things about written stories is that they are the only medium where you can not only put yourself into someone else's body, but you can slip on and perceive their mind.

It is the only medium where the audience can actually become someone else physically and cognitively--an experience that is completely impossible by all accounts in this life.

But there is perhaps one person who has lived who had this ability (and this is where I might lose some of my readers reading this, but just give it a chance, even if you disagree). I personally believe it was real, but even if you believe it was fictitious, I hope you can still find it in your heart to appreciate the concept and story.

This was Jesus Christ.

Jesus spent much of His life serving and helping others. Not only were His deeds amazing, but His teachings were positively revolutionary. Love your enemies? What? Are you sure?

However, the epitome of Christ's life was about His death.

The atonement.

Where He took on all of humankind's sins and ailments, leading Him to bleed from "every pore."

Now I can't speak for all other christian religions, but in the one I'm part of, we believe that not only was this done for our salvation, but another reason was so that Christ would know how to succor us perfectly.

Through Christ's life, and especially through the atonement, He was a master of empathy. Even if you do not believe Him to be the Son of God, He was an amazing person. Even if you do not believe He was a real man, the story is an amazing story that teaches many wonderful principles to live by.

An important and vital aspect in the concept of Christ's atonement, is that He took on everyone's sins and hardships. He experienced everyone's.

I do not believe that Christ got to one person and thought, "Wow, George is a drug addict, I better skip him," or "Tisha is a black who suffered prejudice, I think I'd rather not," or "Jennifer suffered trials as a closet lesbian, I don't want to experience what that was like, skip."


He experienced it all.

Every. Thing.

He did not sift through the content.

He lived it.

So not only is developing empathy a wonderful thing, I'd argue it's positively god-like.

Now that's not to say you should not have any personal limits or lines. After all, I'm not Jesus, and I have my own limitations. Nor am I prophesied of saving all mankind by taking on all their sins and ailments (shocking, I know).

But we do a disservice to ourselves and the world by not reading or writing certain realms of the human experience. And ignorance is a danger. One of the greatest commandments is to love. And it's much easier to do that when you can vicariously experience what others experience. Some of my favorite stories have hugely flawed characters--and I loved them. And I learned so much from them.

Not only that, but I believe one of the reasons we are here is to gain human experience. After all, I could easily hang out in Heaven and read the scriptures all day without having to deal with the troubles of this fallen world. We don't need to be on earth to read the word of God.

So next time you are stressing out about "Should I?" or "Shouldn't I?" I just want you to remember this. That someone who people consider a God willingly had that mortal experience. Then if you want, you can go look at all the technicalities and treatments and use your own judgement to make a decision.

But I would argue that to be empathetic is to be godly.

. . . . and if that post wasn't for you, you can wait for my next one  :)


  1. I love this. What a wonderful guide to figuring out where your own personal line is. Mine is a lot further out there than most LDS writers, but I firmly believe that our lines are a very personal thing. This post just makes me feel better about my liberal line. :)

    1. Kris,

      Thanks! The more time goes on, the more I realize that this is a very personal decision, and we should not be condemning each other over it. Jesus suffered all things and experienced all things--I don't think it's evil to do some of the same. In my opinion, it's more important what the story conveys about the subject. I don't believe Christ wants us to live in ignorance and turn a blind eye to life's difficulties and complexities. He wants us to gain charity and wisdom.

  2. Thank you for this post. It took guts to write it, but I think it was needed!

  3. Excellent post. Thank you for writing it.


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