Hello, bloggerly chums!
It’s been a long time since I did a proper Story Ramble post, which is a shame. I love doing them…but they take a bit more thought than I usually have at my disposal, unfortunately. (Of course I’d like to think that I’m a Deep Thinker, but…probably wishful thinking, truth be told.)
A Certain Side-Effect of Reading
Reading fiction is a pastime that is near and dear to my heart. Stories of the fictional variety have had a profound influence on who I am, and I think that’s worth a good deal.
So, I don’t just read for entertainment…or maybe I do? But luckily there are some wholesome side-effects, regardless.
SUCH AS TRUTH.
(…Not to say that stories aren’t full of lies as well? Because that’s what I call bad fiction. But we are not talking about that today. We are talking about good fiction. The true kind.)
…Um. Well. Words.
(Where was I going with this?)
(Why isn’t this post writing itself? Or maybe it is writing itself and that’s the problem??)
(…Hence, we call it a ‘ramble’.)
What I’m trying to say is, there is a unique way in which stories can speak to us. Stories can help us gain understanding and process things in ways that mere facts cannot do. There are truths that penetrate to the deepest places in us only through the power of story. AND IT’S BEAUTIFUL AND WE SHOULD ALL CRY ABOUT IT.
…I kind of care about this a lot, in case you hadn’t picked up on it yet.
The Power of the Unexpected
But why do I need fiction to gain these truths? Why don’t I just read history books and anthropology textbooks and self-help books and devotionals to learn about stuff?? Hmm??
Stories reveal truth to us in unexpected ways. The unexpectedness is vital, actually, in a lot of cases, because it’s way more about taking a journey than gaining knowledge.
You know how you get used to seeing things a certain way? And you have your certain thought processes and organizations for the way things work? And you know how to deflect certain emotional blows like a pro because you know they are coming and you are naturally cynical because heaven forbid you let people take advantage of you and you have all your emotional armor on so you are all set? (No? Never mind, then, this post might not be for you.)
Stories have some sort of magic about them. They break through, somehow. They take us out of our day-to-day lives and give us a fresh perspective. The truths we learn through stories aren’t the sort you can understand without taking some kind of a journey.
They have the ability to worm their way under our armor, because they take us off our guard.
So, what kinds of truths am I talking about, anyway?
A Wider Perspective of the World
It’s often too easy to get stuck in my little corner of the world. Which is part of the reason reading is so important.
There are so many things that I will never experience in real life that I have experienced vicariously through the characters in a story. The world is so big and there are so many different cultures and sub-cultures and traditions and places and family dynamics and political disasters and the like, not to mention the way the world has been throughout history, and the more I read the wider my perspective becomes. Not so much through the hard facts (though, don’t get me wrong, these play a role) as through the journey I take to obtain them.
Stories make the facts matter.
When I was in school, our literature and history class were the same class (such is the beauty of homeschooling), and honestly this makes so much sense to me. Literature is history. They interweave with each other so much.
Insightful Angles and Unfolding Patterns
Then there are other things that I have experienced, and reading them in a story helps throw them into sharper relief by putting them into a different context.
The more we understand history, the more patterns we begin to see, and the better we can understand where we are and how we got here.
(Yes, fiction can give us a better understanding of history. Bear with me here.)
Fiction can be a response to history or to the present world, or to both- whether the author consciously means for it to be that way or not. Even fantasy worlds are built on real-world principles and can often hit us harder with themes that are lost to us in their real-world habitat, because we have become so accustomed to the way things are. It’s only once you take a theme and put it in a completely different setting that you go HEY WAIT A SECOND.
I love to look at society through the lens of fictional societies. It’s just fiction…OR IS IT? History repeats itself, and fiction reflects reality. The societies in Animal Farm, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, and The Hunger Games fascinate people…parallels, anyone??
(Yeah…I’m one of those crazy people who thinks we are literally living in a dystopian society at the moment…like, we live in a culture that has normalized child sacrifice?? I talked specifically about child sacrifice in fictional societies in a previous Story Ramble post…which you should all read because it’s so much…um…fun? No, it’s really not…but still.)
Helping us Understand Ourselves
Often you need to take a step back from something to see it properly (remember my brilliant doughnut metaphor? Yeah, um, it doesn’t exactly pertain to the current conversation, but I thought you might want to remember its brilliance anyway). We can see this when we suddenly realize that some fantastical society is eerily similar to our own…but does this work on an individual level? We can’t exactly step back from ourselves, now, can we? (OR CAN WE?)
Um…so, the thing is, when we read, we sometimes recognize ourselves in fiction. Truths that we couldn’t see become glaringly obvious because we are seeing them through the lens of a character. More often than not this can be kind of unpleasant- but good for us, in the long run.
One of the many times this happened for me was when I met Orual from Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. I wasn’t as extreme as her (I mean, not that that’s saying much), but reading her story opened my eyes to how harmful certain kinds of older-sibling love can be. I recognized myself in her, which helped motivate me to keep myself from becoming more like her.
Fiction can be so convicting.
A particularly excellent example of fiction being used as a means of conviction is when the prophet Nathan tells David the story about the sheep-stealing rich guy and gets King David to see WHAT A COMPLETE JERK he was…before telling him the story was actually about David himself. He doesn’t just show up and tell him “Yo, you messed up” because our knee-jerk reaction to that is to defend ourselves. Instead he gets him all worked up about this other guy and then turns it around…yeah, fiction catching us off guard at its finest (also most painful).
(True, this is example is specifically allegorical, but the principle really applies to all types of fiction… In fact I myself vastly prefer ambiguous metaphor to direct allegory…but I digress.)
We are so good at rationalizing our own behavior. We are so tangled up in ourselves. It often takes seeing ourselves from the outside to realize what we are really doing.
The good news is, once we start getting a better idea of our flaws, we can actually start to work on them?
Also it’s comforting to know that other people struggle with the same kinds of things that we struggle with. We are not alone in our mess. And often a positive character arc helps give us hope for ourselves. Like, yes, Boromir made a Huge Mistake but he then he redeemed himself and isn’t that just a beautiful thing?? (It certainly is.)
I just can’t get over how reading about certain characters can be…therapeutic? I learn to process my emotions through following some hobbits on a quest and it’s all rather astounding, really.
In addition to gaining a better understanding of myself through fiction, I find that reading is an excellent way to get into other peoples’ heads. People who are nothing like me.
Being able to understand other people is such a major part of being human. (In fact, your ability to empathize is kind of the thing that keeps you from becoming a psychopath, so…you might want to develop it.)
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by Actual Humans (I excel at getting overwhelmed), and at one point in time I kind of decided that they weren’t worth the bother. But I have learned (partially through fiction, shockingly) that having Actual Humans in your life is so important. But it’s hard?? How does one interact??
So, it helps when we start to recognize our mutual humanness. We might not have a thing in common, but at least we have that. Which makes all the difference. The person standing next to you has struggles and feels awkward sometimes too. They have a story. We have to figure out how to see that. We need to learn to “put ourselves in other people’s shoes” as it were, and reading can be such great practice for that, honestly.
I’ve been in so many vastly different characters heads. But in a well-written story, it doesn’t matter how different someone is from me. If the author can convince me that they are human, there is a part of me that can relate to them, and then I can understand them.
It’s kind of like using training wheels. The author takes you by the hand and guides you through this character’s journey, helps you understand who they are, and you get it, even if you don’t really have anything in common aside from the “Being Human” thing (which is actually pretty significant).
When dealing with real humans, you won’t always get so much help. You won’t always get the tragic backstory and motivations and whatnot, but I find that the more I read, the more I see that all those things are there, if that makes sense. Every person I come in contact with has a story, and their pain is just as real as my pain. The better we understand that, the better we can get at loving each other.
Of course, the thing that really makes sense of all these messy human interactions is God’s love for us. I know this. But…(and I’m about to say something that may sound rather blasphemous here), I’ve been hearing the gospel story since before I can remember and it sometimes starts to feel kind of…stale. It’s a truth I’ve heard so many times that I kind of go on auto-pilot when I hear it, like it’s this boring, tired mantra.
WHICH IS SO WRONG.
Because….there is nothing stale or boring or tired about it. It’s the story that gives all the stories meaning! It is THE story. I KNOW THIS. BUT. I guess I forget??
So here’s how fiction helps me with that.
You know when you are reading a really good book, and you just FEEL things? Specifically when a character does something selfless and sacrificial for the people they love and you just…want to cry? I mean, this happens ALL OVER THE PLACE and it’s BEAUTIFUL.
BECAUSE IT IS TRUTH.
Every time I am moved by a story of love, of self-sacrifice, I stop and remind myself that it’s just a shadow of how much we are loved by God.
…And I just get my mind blown again and again.
There are so many stories that reflect aspects of THE story, and it just hammers home the glory of it. I need to be reminded, because I am silly.
Fiction is such a fantastic thing, but it only means anything to us in light of reality. In my mind, good fiction has the ability to take hold of the truest strands of reality and clear away the extraneous details. It figures out how to cut a focused path through the chaos, as it were (or even explore the chaos), and bring us back to the story we all need to hear over and over again for the first time (that sentence makes sense, right?? Sure it does).
I LOVE STORIES. SO MUCH. And hopefully I’ve conveyed some of the reasons why in a somewhat lucid manner. If not, hey, at least I got to ramble about my favorite topic, so it’s not a total loss.
Do you find the way stories function in our lives to be as fascinating as I do? Do you think that history and literature should be taught together, or is that weird? Has reading helped you learn empathy? Go forth and read all the things!