It comes up every few months. It starts small but soon enough blossoms to a full-time preoccupation. I drift through reality, experience heightened by desire, appetite sharpening my senses. I’m unable to resist the enchantment even when I fear the strength of its pull.


So what’s my drug? Tantric sex? Trance dance? Ayahuasca?


Nope. Fan fiction. (For the uninitiated—internet-based, fan-crafted stories about popular characters from movies and TV).


In high school English we learned about the themes of literary fiction: man against world, man against himself, chaos and order, life and death, coming of age, and so on. They were meant to provoke deep thought about our place in society and the universe. 


Fan fiction has its themes too, not subtly suggested in elegant prose, but announced up front in “tags”. The purpose of these motifs, as far as I can tell, is to hook me more completely than English lit ever did. It was a pretty heady experience, after years of self-imposed intellectual snobbery, to discover that thousands of other people wanted to see their favourite Norse God or British detective in a “hurt/comfort” scenario as much I did!


The appeal of the tagged themes is various—erotic, romantic, sentimental—but in the end they all offer the opportunity to feel deeply such basic emotions as concern, excitement, and grief. Guilty pleasure though it may be, I’m not sure that’s really such a bad thing.


Fan fic authors love to subject their borrowed heroes to extensive and increasingly creative wounding. Such scenes open up the raw vulnerability we all may be feeling inside, laying it out on the page in detail. They give us the chance to imagine ourselves in the characters’ place, helping or being helped without judgment. Since physical pain lacks the stigma of mental distress, many of the scenes involve injuries that evoke straightforward concern that's easy for the reader to share. But even emotional pain can be presented sympathetically because we are granted entry to character’s backstory and moments of self-blame. We empathize with their suffering, and learn, by extension, how to acknowledge our own.


In “forbidden love” scenarios we encounter not just the exotic or delightfully unexpected, but a mix of vulnerability and bravery that evokes our compassion. This surge of sympathy is just the hit we’re looking for. We are moved by those who dare to love at risk to themselves, because our inner heart wants to believe that we too can be brave, and that we too needn’t be perfect to love or be loved. Our strong attraction to such portrayals is a testament to our true aspirations, so often set aside in a world that seems to demand distance and self-protection.


Fan fic has powerfully reminded me of what I really long for, and primed me for the work of cultivating compassion for real people. They have backstories too, and filling them in imaginatively is a spiritual practice Buddhists call “karuna meditation.” (Yogis and pagans use visualizations and pathworkings to similar effect). They all affirm the same truth: if I can see beyond another’s annoying behaviour to the suffering behind it, if I can call up the flavour of tender feeling and apply it those I meet, I can find my heart’s fulfillment in the here and now:


Now for a breath I tarry

Nor yet disperse apart—

Take my hand quick and tell me

What have you in your heart.


Speak now and I will answer;

How shall I help you, say.

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

I take my endless way.


 --A.E. Houseman