I would like to formally apologize to anyone who knew me before the age of twenty. I could list the myriad of reasons why this is the case but the main one is that I was deeply entrenched in the “not like other girls” mentality. I snubbed my nose at top forty radio because I was cool. I tried to read only highbrow literature because I was an intellectual. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading Twilight like everyone else. Please don’t judge me by this now. Just typing those words made me want to roll my eyes to the back of my head.
Thankfully life changed for me, and I changed drastically along with it, but I still see a lot of that particular toxic mentality out in the world.
It will come as a shock to no one that romance books are often overlooked and underappreciated for the works for art they are. At the very best romance or “chick lit” novels are written off as “escapism” or “brain candy” by many. “Escapism” is often whispered behind hands and muttered with downcast eyes like it’s a dirty secret. Like somehow wanting to participate in a story with a happy ending makes it less worth our time than other stories that are being told.
For me this is not the case at all.
When I first started my social work graduate program I was lucky enough to get an internship in a hospital. I worked to educate and support patients who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and had recently been discharged to go home. It was weeks upon weeks of helping with support groups, hearing traumatic stories of accidents, and witnessing first hand the grieving process of a life forever changed. I don’t think I was even half way through the semester before I started to feel either panic or emotional numbness. I was understandably overwhelmed with the emotional toll a job like that took.
I was also entirely unprepared.
Thankfully one of my professors soon started talking about compassion fatigue and the importance of self care one day in class. There are many fancier definitions of compassion fatigue to be found on the internet but the basic idea is that the human brain can only empathize with so much suffering before it starts to numb out entirely in order to protect itself. I realized, with no small amount of mortification, that it was something I was experiencing first hand. My professor then shared the beauty and importance of self care. “Do something that is entirely you.” she said, “Something that brings you joy in whatever unique way you need to feel like a human being again.”
I knew it had to be reading. It had always been reading for me. Except for in that season, up until that point, it hadn’t been. The thriller I’d picked up had left me feeling panicky and anxious. The old classic favorites I tried couldn’t hold an ounce of my attention. With some trepidation I turned to a romance novel my friend had recommended to me years before.
I devoured it.
In fact not only did I devour it, I also felt happy and hopeful afterward.
For the rest of my long semester I turned to romance books as a safe haven. I loved the assurance they brought and the trust I had in the authors when opening a new book. It was a trust that said “No matter what happens here at the beginning or in the middle it’s going to end well. There will be true love and kisses and you’ll probably squeal at least once.” I know I am not saying anything that writers and readers of romance have not been saying for decades before me, but in a world with no such assurances I took incredible solace in the happily ever afters.
“Escapism” some might say. “Brain candy” others sneer. Except for can we really allow a healthy amount of escapism to hold such a negative connotation if it gives us the bandwidth to dig into our human empathy as well as the relationships around us? Shouldn’t we appreciate it for the self care tool that it is?
Romance books gave my mind enough time and joy to reset from simply functioning on autopilot to actually deeply engaging with those around me again. They were key to me overcoming compassion fatigue in that season of life. If that does not constitute a beautiful work of art then I don’t know what does.
In a world where the globe feels small and bad news rests in the palms of our hands nearly 24/7 it is likely possible that compassion fatigue has become a very real part of most people’s lives. If that is the case, perhaps we should be proud of the ways we can take care of ourselves. Maybe romance books and happily ever afters are part of the answer. They certainly were for me.