Back to Brokeback Mountain

Personally, I wouldn’t have guessed that things would have moved so fast — not ten years ago. Back then I wasn’t even quite sure where I stood on the issue of gay marriage. Like most thoughtful Christians in their late twenties, I was in a bit of an intellectual and political pickle. There was the taken-for-granted, unquestioned dogma from my church and seminary: that homosexuality was evil and perverse. On the other hand, there was what I could see with my own eyeballs, my own personal experiences of having friends and family who were gay or lesbian, people who were not sinister or perverse, just human, perhaps, flawed like the rest of us.

In the greater culture, to stack alongside my personal experiences, were film and television, putting human faces to an issue that Christian conservatives were still keeping in the theological abstract. I remember watching Will and Grace. There was also Brokeback Mountain. Recently, now ten years after Brokeback, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on gay marriage that reflects the sea change in public opinion. To borrow an old cowboy expression, it’s all over but the cryin’.

Brokeback follows in the tradition of great love stories like Romeo and Juliet or the more recent international blockbuster Titanic: two lovers trying to explore their love despite the hostility from their culture. Like TitanicBrokeback is a motion picture masterpiece. The cinematography is stunning, setting the reluctant and difficult love affair against the beautiful background of the grand, unhurried Montana mountains. Somehow the tranquility of the lush, rolling hills invite the audience into the extended agony of the protagonists. Their attraction for each other is as natural as a thunder storm and as inevitable as the rising sun.

Even the conservative Christianity Today, on their website of film reviews, gave Brokeback 3 of 4 stars even while carefully qualifying their review by saying that their positive appraisal of the film did not, necessarily, mean that they were recommending that people actually watch the film.

The Power of Empathy

The power of Brokeback for the advancement of gay rights lies precisely in the fact that it does not address the issue but rather engages the empathy of the audience. It taps into that primal quality that stories have to facilitate an intimate encounter with others, to give us the sense that we are actually inhabiting the hearts and minds of others. Great stories engage our empathy, they help us appreciate the suffering of others, as though we ourselves were experiencing it, and they do it in a way that nothing else can quite do. Just beginning to write about it is enough to tempt me into spending the rest of this article waxing esoterically about the mysterious and spiritual nature of narrative. There’s certainly a place for that, but there’s also hard science.

Empathy is an advanced neurobiological capacity that we humans possess. It has to do, in large part, to that little bit of extra space we’ve got at the front of our skulls to carry around a tad more grey matter, the frontal cortex to be precise. This extra squishy stuff also gives us the ability to recognize ourselves as a separate “I” in the world. It is the blessing and curse of self-consciousness.

Other sentient beings have the luxury of going about their business without reflecting on their place in the world. They don’t agonize over the nature of existence, ask deep questions about “the meaning of life,” or ponder their place in the world. Other beings get angry, but they don’t necessarily take things so damned personally as we do. The Genesis account of Adam and Eve might be alluding to our awakening to self-consciousness when referencing the fact that Adam and Eve suddenly realized that they were naked and became ashamed.

For better or worse, we are self-conscious creatures. Alongside this comes the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others. Empathy. I can reflect on myself, ponder what it means to be me, Jon Erdman, a vagabond who lives out of a van and travels to Alaska every summer to work and then spends the winter as a starving artist trying to become a published author. But I, Jon Erdman, can also put myself in your story and imagine what it might be like to be you. And if you piss me off, I have the ability to stop myself and empathize with you. Even though I don’t do this nearly enough, as a human being I have the neural capacity and mental imagination to think of what it must be like to be you and to connect the dots of how you might have done that something-or-other that pissed me off. This capacity for empathy is perhaps the essence of the spiritual journey, especially notable in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Empathy of Jesus

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ most famous stories and also one where empathy is the central point. It’s a story about a Samaritan who stops to help a Jew who is dying on the road. Two Jewish leaders had already passed by, failing at the basic divine duty of compassion. It took a Samaritan — who wasn’t really supposed to give a damn about a Jew — to stop and lend a hand. The really intriguing thing about this story is its context. The story was Jesus’ response to a technical religious and theological question. The Jewish law declared that a person was to “love thy neighbor.” Well, just to be safe, the greatest minds debated the point: just who is my “neighbor?” Like, how far do we extend love. Clearly not to enemies, it’s only the “neighbor,” and just to clarify, the intellectuals debated the finer points of neighborliness and neighbority. Jesus bypassed the debate and took the Jericho road. He used a story about an empathetic Samaritan and got back to the whole point of the law: your neighbor is anyone in need and the act of love is your empathetic response to anyone in need.

It is clear upon reading through the Gospels that one of the primary reasons that Jesus was such a successful teacher is that he relied on stories. We have condensed versions of what were likely more extensive discourses (and even dialogs) with audiences of listeners. Stories have the capacity to both take us deeper into ourselves and also out of ourselves and into the lives of others. We can feel more deeply when we hear stories, read narratives, or watch films. We can also enter new worlds, engage in the journeys of others, those for whom it might be difficult to understand and to love.

Stories are powerful, yes, but at the same time, they aren’t magic. Otherwise the world would have stayed an Edenic utopia. Stories themselves don’t seem to have the ability to teach us to empathize if empathy isn’t already something we do. In some cases they can shake us from a lack of compassion, and this was clearly Jesus’ intent in many cases. But in most cases, empathy seems to be a choice. We have to give ourselves over to the experience. Just because we watch a good film or read a novel that invites empathy doesn’t mean that we are going to actually practice empathy.

The Bloodless Revolution

Not everyone who watched Brokeback felt empathy for the main characters. Some intentionally boycotted the film, viewing it as liberal propaganda or part of “the gay agenda” to brainwash society. But the stories kept piling up. Brokeback wasn’t an aberration because we all knew them — brothers and sisters, co-workers and best friends — real people with real faces and true stories, and as a culture it changed our perception. Like the characters in Brokeback, “they” weren’t just “gay” anymore, “they” became people who could feel, who could love, and who were fragile enough to break. We recognized something universal. It was the same journey.

What fascinates me is that the axial point in this current cultural shift is empathy. It isn’t primarily a battle of dogma or ideas. It isn’t a new theory or theological change. It isn’t complicated. It’s people hearing the stories of other people. It is empathetic human beings exercising their ability to enter the intimate personal spaces of another. It is a bloodless revolution.

All of this makes me wonder and reflect. When empathy is the axial point — when empathy turns the wheel of cultural perception — then what other mountains might we be able to move? Stories and empathy — it’s not a magic bullet, but it is a tool, and perhaps it is both our most primal and most powerful.