Don't Take it Personally

When we are in high school, we often hear our elders tell us to not take things so personally. This advice seems to be given in so many contexts that it is difficult to enumerate them. When we're learning to drive and someone cuts you off, the parent or instructor reminds you to not get upset—don't take it personally. When get in disagreements with our friends, teachers, or parents, we're reminded by a calm voice just let it go—don't take it so personally. This advice to recognize that we are not likely the center of other people's universe is quite contrary to our own perceptions, our beliefs about our own unique "hero's journey". This advice, it seems to me, asks us to de-center ourselves, and to thereby recognize the larger and more interconnected nature of things.

We see Tayo embody this movement in several ways, but perhaps none so overtly as following his encounter with the racist ranch hands. In search of the "Mexican cattle" bought by his uncle, Tayo traverses the landscape. In doing so, he crosses some fences and is confronted by the two ranch hands. Uttering their racial epithets and revealing their unchecked bigotry, they eventually decide to track and kill a mountain lion rather than bother with Tayo. Following their departure, "he lay there and hated them" (189). An understandable response given all that he has been through. Yet, what Silko writes following that is perhaps unexpected:

He lay there and hate them. Not for what they wanted to do with him, but for what they did to the earth with their machines, and to the animals with their packs of dogs and their guns. [...] He wanted to scream at Indians like Harley and Helen Jean and Emo that the white things they admired and desired so much—the bright city lights and loud music, the soft sweet food and the cars—all these things had been stolen, torn out of Indian land: raw living materials for their ck'o'yo manipulation. The people had been taught to despise themselves because they were left with barren land and dry rivers. But they were wrong.
~Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony, 189.

It's a long paragraph that I think has much in common with work like that of W. E. B. Debois Frantz Fanon. Despite important differences, Silko also seems to be addressing the experience of "double consciousness" of which those two wrote.

It is likely obvious that it is difficult (perhaps, even impossible) for those in a position of power to understand the difficulties those who are subordinated go through. The power structure, the hierarchy, the systems of oppression become so naturalized and hidden from view that they become difficult to see, difficult to understand, even for some difficult to believe. What is less commonly recognized, but what work like Silko's help expose, is just how far this naturalized power structure and resultant oppression can go: it can reach so far and so deep that even the oppressed suffer from the "ck'o'yo manipulation," as Silko calls it. 

I suppose this is why I see such enormous value in literature. Spending an extended period of time with a character—walking a mile in their shoes, as the cliché would go—helps open our eyes, ears, and yes even our hearts to the experiences of others. Such empathy takes time, yet I believe literature works slowly and deeply enough to accomplish much in that direction. It helps us recognize that we are not the center of the universe. Recognizing my own idealism here, the hope is that such experiences will carry over from the pages of books to our quotidian lives, so that the next time we encounter a difficulty, we won't take it so personally.