Story is not enough

It’s very hard to write when you are sick at heart.

For me – an American – the events of the past few months have caused a renewal of heartache. My country’s election of a corrupt, cruel, and venomous buffoon to the position of national leader was undeniably a catalyst, but the ache predates even his rise to power. We live a time of almost unbearable strangeness, where one can go with a few clicks from cat videos to pornography to people pratfalling off treadmills. People can live decades with diseases that would have been death sentences a few decades ago, doctors can videoconference to surgery tables, and we can see light-years away with stunning clarity.

These are the days of miracle, to paraphrase Paul Simon, but not of wonder.

When wonder is gone, something has to step up to fill that void, and in the age of technology, narrative has become the vehicle of choice for facilitating that transcendence. We’ve broken down the universe to its molecular level, in terms of understanding, and it’s harder to feel awe of something when you can analyze it down to the DNA strands. We can trace the trajectory of our miracles, and perhaps that’s why we no longer recognize them as the marvels they are. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re aware of the path of history that led to them, and often we frame that path as a tale that is either ending, cresting, or just beginning.

We live in an age that prizes narrative arc above all else.  The glut of quality television shows led critics a few years ago to lament the lack of time for watching everything. Without narrative, Silicon Valley would lose its mystique as a mecca of the enlightened futurists and be more broadly understood as a bunch of avaricious people raising absurd funding on the promise of code and pretty words. In the horror show of politics, narratives are crafted from roughly the same raw material and then blared from the rooftops (or, increasingly, laptops).

Even if you aren’t in the creative fields or business school, heaven help you if you don’t have some kind of story for yourself. Aspiring college students vie every year to present themselves as the hero or antihero of their own existence (which can pose serious difficulties in the essay-writing if your existence hasn’t had sufficient plot twists or antagonists), hoping that they’ll become part of the bigger and brighter story offered by the university of their choice. Prospective employees, it can be argued, want to show that a job position is the next natural step in their character development.

Story also plays a fundamental role in people’s lives as just story – there’s no end of examples about the power of tales to move us, to stir us to think, to change our minds. And make no mistake, narrative is a powerful driving force, one that can be used for great good or great evil. To take it lightly or dismiss it would be a grievous mistake.

But story and narrative are not going to save us.

A quick look through history should provide ample evidence of humans’ long-standing need for saving – or at the very least, their long-standing need for drastic improvement. There’s no end of physical and metaphysical explanations for that and how that might be done (for the record, I go for the Catholic one). What I am interested in here is the fact that throughout time, the human race has floundered in need of help.

The arts, valuable as they are, are not going to be our salvation. Miracles are not enough if we cannot recognize them as such. And until we learn to look at the world as it is, I don’t think we can have wonder for our miracles. It is very hard “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe” at a painting, fiction, or a piece of music without a solid grounding in the imperfect world from which it came.

During the election, I saw no end of articles using Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and more recently, 1984, to talk about reality. When I first saw the trend pop up, I found it lacking in depth, but otherwise didn’t think about it much. Several months later, I’m starting to think that there’s more harm in this way of thinking than anyone – including me – could have guessed. As alarmingly apt as some of the analogies were (“alternative facts” leaps to mind), the evils of the world are not plot twists, and we need to stop treating them as such. They are not antagonists on our quest to glory, they are not oafs to be outdone by our scintillating wit, they are not bosses by which we level up, they are not tests of character by which we prove our worth, they are not even tragic flaws by which we are undone.

They just – are.

They exist.

And we must deal with them as the things they are, without a lens to soften them.While story can give us indicators on how to do so, or how to find the strength for such battles, we cannot overcome evil things by treating them as literary devices.

The articles I listed above are extreme, unsophisticated examples of this way of thinking, but I think we resort to this thought process more often in our own lives than we would like to admit. It’s fitting, then, that I turn to a story to illustrate. Specifically, Les Miserables.

For those who don’t know the book – which is worth every nanosecond of the hours it takes to read – there’s a point in it where Jean Valjean, an convict in violation of his parole, has established a new life for himself as an entrepreneur, backbone of society, and eventually mayor of his town. It’s an incredibly hard-earned victory for him, after years spent in the penal galleys at backbreaking labor, and he’s so virtuous in the process that it would be tooth-rotting without the background of his suffering and his capacity for evil.

But his past still lurks, and it’s thrust back into his face when a wretch of a man a few towns over is mistakenly identified as Jean Valjean. The real Valjean learns of this and is faced with the choice of letting the other man go to the galleys as him, or going to court and clearing the man’s name. The latter, of course, will result in capture and everything Valjean has accomplished being wiped out.

It’s an awful choice to have to make, and the chapters Hugo spends on Valjean’s decision-making here are riveting. Though the whole sequence is worth reading, these lines, spoken by Valjean to himself, are the ones I want to highlight:

“And all this [the man being mistaken for him] has been brought about without any aid from me, and I count for nothing in it! Ah! but where  is the misfortune in this? … After all, if it does bring harm to someone, that is not my fault in the least: it is Providence which has done it all; it is because it wishes it so to be, evidently. Have I the right to disarrange what it has arranged? What do I ask now? Why should I meddle? It does not concern me; what! I am not satisfied: but what more do I want? The goal to which I have aspired for so many years, the dream of my nights, the object of my prayers to Heaven, – security,- I have now attained; it is God who wills it; I can do nothing against the will of God, and why does God will it? In order that I may continue what I have begun, that I may do good, that I may one day be a grand and encouraging example, that it may be said at last, that a little happiness has been attached to the penance which I have undergone, and to that virtue to which I have now returned. … It is settled, let things take their course; let the good God do as he likes!”

The bolding is mine. We all assume that we’re going to be a grand and encouraging example, especially an example that WE find grand and encouraging. Anything that gets in the way of our perceived trajectory to that is one that we’ll be instinctively inclined to dodge, because it doesn’t match what we’ve decided is our fate. That’s not how the story is supposed to go, we tell ourselves, when such a decision is placed before us.

In Les Miserables, the reality is that a miserable old man is going to be sent to conditions where he will likely die if Valjean does nothing. Whatever comes after that is smoke and mirrors, conjured by the instinct of self-preservation. Valjean uses that smoke and mirrors to mask that reality. I’ve done the same on more occasions than I could count, when the potential fallout for me is paltry by comparison.

In a story, there is an ending, where all decisions culminate and all threads are gathered together to a meaningful point. Reality does not work in this way. We cannot storyboard our existence, however tempting that may be. All there is is what is, and by our actions, “what is” takes shape. Though the thoughtful application of story can aid our decisions, stories are, at best, warped reflections. If we want to act with wisdom, it’s time we started dealing with what casts those images, rather than trying to account for every possible distortion.

It is very easy to look a small action, like volunteering at a food bank or buying someone coffee, as meaningless in the grand scheme of things because it doesn’t solve whatever greater ill-forces made it necessary. But that’s the wrong way of looking at these actions. The meaning of such small, ordinary services to others doesn’t lie in their impact, but in the actions themselves – in looking at someone else and in going out of the way to do what is needful simply because the dignity of the other person demands it or because justice requires it. There’s no narrative arc involved – just the recognition of something marvelous that needs to be upheld, and the decision to do the upholding. Not because we’re heroes, but because someone needs to do the lifting, and since we’re here, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be us.

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5 thoughts on “Story is not enough

  1. Very thought-provoking post. I think there’s a correct and an incorrect way of viewing ourselves as part of a larger story. I think there’s a sense in which the whole of reality can be viewed as a story. Many philosophies and faith traditions’ accounts of reality take the form of a narrative. One of the unique characteristics of being human is that we cannot be fully systematized. We are unpredictable in a way that makes history a story instead of a natural science. I think things become problematic when we try to construe events into the story that we would like instead of taking them as a part of the story that really is.

    • These are all very good points- and yet human nature being what it is, I think we’re much too inclined to “to construe events into the story that we would like.” I feel like there must be a middle ground between story and natural science when it comes to something like history, but I have to admit I don’t have a clue what that might be.

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