Robert Coles, Charles Dickens and Louis Theroux

I’m reading about Robert Coles in Philip Yancey’s book ‘Soul Survivor: How my faith survived the church’.  I had never heard of Robert Coles before, but I am enjoying everything Yancey is telling me about him.  Robert Coles talks about the insight that the great novelists have into human character, and how it far exceeds the knowledge of even the best psychiatrists and psychologists.  Take Dickens, for example, since it’s Christmastime, we’ve recently watched ‘A Muppet Christmas carol’, which I love. Dickens’ brilliance at revealing the motivations of people is astounding.  His characters are so deep and well portrayed yet Dickens also understands his readers and evokes strong feelings in us that urge us to respond to the plight of the poor and the injustices they face. No article or journal written by a psychiatrist/psychologist has impacted me in the same way.

Robert Coles recognises this and is quoted as saying ‘we have categories for every person on earth, but who can explain just one person?’.  I love this, it’s obvious I can’t even explain myself to other people, yet alone understand other people in their entire complexity.  How easily I put people into categories though. I am an ‘INTJ’ Myers Briggs type and that ‘N’ is always trying to get me to summarise, draw conclusions about and categorise people – I love to label.  But these words of Robert Coles remind me it’s not that simple, fair, or right to do this.  What nuances and detail I have been missing!

It has reminded of Louis Theroux’s Dark States that I watched recently.  His programmes always get under my skin and these were no different.  In this series he looks at three issues: Opiod Addiction, Sex Trafficking and Gun Crime in the US. He achieves what Coles’ recommends, namely telling the stories of individuals in depth, through their words and body language, to give an overarching narrative.  It is impossible to ignore the issues because having watched his programmes means you now know and feel for the people involved.

Theroux then, is like Dickens, and Coles, I think, would recommend them both. And I recommend all three of them.

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