Empathy for Dracula

Dr. Schaak used to always tell our literature classes at Multnomah, “The goal of literature is empathy.” I told my students that in our last gathering all together on Friday before we discovered we’d be moving to online school until after Easter break. Then I proceeded to lay into these precious little children for the way they were a bunch of jerk faces to each other.

I read the passage where Mina Harker asks the men hunting Dracula to pity him. “That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.” When her husband reacts strongly against this suggestion, she goes on, “I have been thinking all this long, long day of it — that… perhaps… some day… I, too, may need such pity; and that some other like you — and with equal cause for anger — may deny it to me!” (Stoker, 265)

You see, Mina recognizes that she’s on her way to becoming a soulless vampire and hopes to stop that, but in that process she realizes how Dracula was once an ensouled human. In the world of the text, by killing the vampire, they set his imprisoned soul free to be restored to God. People are complicated and messy, and I asked my students to think about how it’s the hurt people who go around hurting other people. We so often react to hurt with hurt, and as I alluded to the past couple weeks, I’m wrestling with that myself. I’ve had varying levels of success in the interactions with friends and students. Honestly, I’ve been more hurtful to the people I care about in the past weeks than I’d like to admit, but I’m coming clean here openly on the internet because it was things intentionally hidden from me that were the initial wound I received.

I even prepped a chapel talk (that I was supposed to give before the government shut down our school gatherings) on how I was learning to stop the cycle of hurt by letting Jesus transform it into healing. Then I went and said a bunch of hurtful things to people who hurt me. Clearly I hadn’t learned the lesson yet. I did apologize, but I was frustrated with myself and wrestled with that default setting I have to cut my losses and stop talking to people and live in a monastery.

Ironically, after my impassioned plea with my AP English students to pity Dracula and extend empathy to the hurtful people around them and to stop hurting others, I had two students come to me and confess conviction that they’d been mean to another student in the class and were either going to or had subsequently apologized to that person. I had no idea either of those two students had done anything mean; I was actually low key calling out three different kids who I had heard had done some pretty terrible things to other kids in the class.

I never know who’s actually listening in my class, and I never know what is really going on; I never know anything, basically. Yet, somehow, by the grace of God, there is some glimmer of growth in at least two of these kids. These two particular students have agreed to be in a mini book club with me when they graduate where we’ll read a novel a month and talk over skype about how it helps us love Jesus better. It’s a voluntary thing, and I told them I just wanted to be an encouragement to their ongoing commitment to Jesus as they leave this atmosphere that’s soaked in Jesus language.

I love my job, and one of the most humbling privileges of it is that several alumni ask for that ongoing relationship with me to have encouragement and accountability in their pursuit of Jesus. It’s all voluntary, and it’s not like I can offer any consequences to college students who do dumb stuff that just damages their witness as a Jesus follower but isn’t like physically damaging to anyone. Due to that, I was all the more devastated and disappointed when two of the students I would have thought myself closest to were exposed about hiding things from me. I happened to be chatting with my sister yesterday when she texted me asking how my heart was once she knew the facts about my school closure. I called her up to respond, “The online classes aren’t an issue at all – not for my heart, really. That was pretty much inevitable, and I was preparing for it already. I’m just still reeling from the hurt of kids lying to me. Why would they do that when it’s not like I have any authority in their life to stop them from doing anything.”

“Well, if they look up to you, they don’t want to disappoint you, so I can understand why they would hide things from you.”

Oof. “I don’t want you to explain their behavior! I want to be mad at them!”

I didn’t respond well because her words made sense, particularly in light of a conversation with two students on Monday who had told me their greatest fear was disappointing me. I’m well aware that I want students to be more concerned about their relationship with Jesus than with not disappointing me, and I tried to encourage the students that all I want to do is point them towards Jesus rather than ever be a source of judgment or condemnation in their lives. They need the safety to be honest with me when they mess up so that I can help them to grow. I want to be on the team of people who points them towards Jesus, recognizing that it’s far more likely I’ll disappoint them than the other way around, but that if I’ve done my job well, when their faith in me is shaken, their faith in Jesus will be secure.

That leads me to one last note on the lessons I’m taking from this latest reading of Dracula. Mina Harker is saved by the team of friends who gather together to fight the evil and are able to save her life and restore her soul. The implications of the narrative are that Dracula never had any friends around him who could have stepped in to help when he became a vampire. I’ve had some shaky moments this past month (honestly, year at this point) both physically, mentally, and spiritually; I’ve also had an incredible support system around me to pray for me, encourage me, and even buy some groceries for me or bring me tacos. Fourteen months ago, I had a mental breakdown, and this past couple weeks when I had symptoms similar to that previous downfall, I had guardrails in place and friends to reach out to. I’m so grateful for those people and plans that have kept me pursuing Jesus so that I can continue to point others to do the same.

(Citation from the Dover Thrift Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula published in 2000.)

Leave a Reply