Last night, I took my puppy, Darcy, outside to go to the bathroom before bed as usual. It was dark but the porch light was on and, as we walked out the door, I saw a grasshopper in the corner of the doorway, swaying side to side as Darcy passed close by. I thought it was trying to ward us off, like I’d seen other insects do when they felt threatened, so I led Darcy away, onto the grass. When we came back to the door, it was still swaying side to side between the light and shadows. I thought it was strange that it hadn’t left, but I left it alone and pretty much forgot about it.
I took Darcy out again this morning, and when we came to the door to go back inside, my eyes passed idly over the corner where I’d seen the grasshopper. It was still there, but it wasn’t moving. It was attached to a spider’s web and the spider stood on the grasshopper’s wing, eating it. It struck me then that what I’d thought was defensive posturing on the grasshopper’s part was most likely the grasshopper’s efforts to free itself from the web. Or it could have been that the grasshopper was already dead and the spider was the one making the grasshopper sway as it moved along the web, unseen in the shadows. The grasshopper may not even have seen us as we passed through the doorway.
I can’t help acknowledging that, once again, nature has proven that what I think I see, and what I think I know, may not be the whole truth in any given situation. I only saw the half that was in the light; the rest was in shadow. And I made an assumption based on that. It’s really not any different in human interactions. Or in our perception of reality, for that matter. It’s easy to assume that the surface — a person’s appearance, the way they speak, the opinions they share — are all that there is because it’s all we can see in the light. We forget that there’s an entire world within them that we may never see, maybe because it’s comforting to imagine that one’s individual perception is objective and total reality. But it doesn’t mean that this other, shadowed world doesn’t exist.
I think that’s perhaps the greatest function of storytelling, if I were to ascribe a use to literature (something I always hesitate to do): to reveal the shadows in a character, real or fictional. I don’t mean “shadows” in a sinister context, as the word often implies; I mean the fears, the inner struggles, the vulnerabilities of people who would otherwise be passed over. To fully humanize them. Because what defines us are not just those traits that are revealed in the light, in our day-to-day interactions, but also that secret, interior world that isn’t often (or ever) revealed to anyone else. Stories are there to entertain, yes, but they also offer an education. They teach us to realize the humanity in others, no matter how well we think we know them. And that’s what makes stories so important, so difficult to write, and so wonderfully rewarding to read.
This isn’t a new idea, of course, but it’s easy to forget. It’s something I struggle to realize every day with each new person I meet, as well as with people I’ve known for years. The reminders come in many forms and I hope that, some day, I’ll be able to integrate those reminders into my being so completely that when I meet someone knew, I’ll no longer see just their surface, but the hint of shadows within as well.