“We tell stories because we can’t help it. We tell stories because we love to entertain and hope to edify. We tell stories because they fill the silence death imposes. We tell stories because they save us.” -Madeleine L’Engle
It is rumored that Alexander the Great slept with a dagger and a copy of The Iliad under his pillow because he was so inspired by Achilles. Countless quizzes circulate the internet that will identify you as a character from any given novel or series. “Are you an Eeyore or a Piglet? A Hermione or a Dumbledore? An Eowyn or a Samwise?” For all it’s worth, there is some pretty great wisdom to be gleaned from this little practice. My friends will know that I frequently refer to life as “the grand narrative,” and that I believe very strongly in educating children through an understanding of history as one story in which we have a part. Each person is indeed a character and the reason that archetypes resonate with us and are recognizable, is that they are true. The world is and always has been full of lovers, dreamers, sages, scholars, skeptics, vixens, villains, nurturers, adventurers, whiners, weaklings, cowards, comrades, loners, losers, and heroes. Today, the question is, “which character are you?”
What a blessing it is to have a great body of fictional and nonfictional literature throughout human history that promotes our ideals. These stories nurture us. They give us a well from which to draw inspiration on the type of character we should possess and are therefore critical to our people as a model of goodness. Conversely, there is a classic body of children’s literature in which evil is evil and that is that. I am trying to resist the temptation here to launch in to a back-in-my-day, diatribe, but perhaps it is worthwhile to point out that there was a once upon a time when the wicked witch was just wicked. We didn’t know or care about her own vicious upbringing and consequent attachment disorder. We just accepted that there was a force of evil that needed to be fought. It is interesting that as the roots of dysfunction become more identifiable, stories begin to take on a new life. As a mom, I have the opportunity to be exposed to a new generation of children’s books and films that have more…shall we say… “sympathy for the devil.” We are exploring the age-old truth that every bad attitude starts with a sad story.
Surely this effort will be rewarded. I can not imagine a society that suffered from too much sympathy. That is, unless it became unhealthily focused on taking on undue responsibility and enabled the problems it longed to solve. It is my hope that a generation nourished on the truth that compassion is a necessary ingredient to the development of the human soul will be able to help it along. Much good can come of this type of story as long as it does not prevent us from identifying with the true heroes, disguise true evil, or encourage us toward self-pity.
Somewhere along the way, I heard the saying, “everyone is a hero in their own drama.” I remember how deeply this impacted me and how it prompted me to set out on the impossible task of avoiding bias in my own narrative – to try to look at it objectively. I believe it’s important to try to see how our attitudes and actions shine under the light of our circumstances, but that it isn’t quite possible to do this in our own strength. To borrow a great moment from a chapter that was written long ago, the shepherd boy, David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” (Psalms 139:23-24) Perhaps this is why God called him, “a man after my own heart.” Would we not also be wise to borrow this prayer and make it a regular practice for our own lives? Sometimes, when I ask God to do this for me, He is kind to reveal traits that would make for an unsavory character in any book. I think it is by the grace of God alone that we can, in the present moment (not in hindsight) shed the protective and defensive mechanisms that blind us in to fierce justification of bad behavior. I believe that people, being made in the image of God, bear the mark of a conscience and that it is less common for us to be intentionally wicked than it is for us to justify ourselves into some false and imagined form of righteousness. We can glean from a trend that was prevalent in the oldest recorded stories: that we all possess some tragic flaw. Perhaps this dogged self-defense of our own sin and selfishness is a tragic flaw of the whole human race. I have yet to meet anyone who consistently sees and admits their own fault (well… maybe Anne Lammot). But, we do each possess our own set of faults that are usually tied to the other side of our strengths. For example: Leaders are vulnerable to pride; beauty can promote vanity; gregariousness can be a stage for the addiction of approval; sweetness can lay a foundation for enablement or the inability to say, “no” when necessary, etc. The really great news about this story, though, is that it is forever changing, and we have the power to ask for help in identifying and overcoming our flaws…or at least to keep them in check.
This is the point at which the thought of narrative becomes a powerful introspective tool. At any given point (when a decision must be made, for example) we can experience a pivotal moment. We may ask “If I were reading this story, what would I hope to see as the outcome?” Of course, it is important to remember that each character is equally important. I love how, in the modern stories, the villain is redeemed. What part might we play in that? Sometimes we are called to be the hero and to stamp out the evil, but we must be careful to avoid the role of heartless, zealous vigilante. Sometimes we will be the loyal friend, but we can’t overplay it and become the pathetic sidekick. Sometimes, we get to play the dream chaser, but not the one who claws their way to the top at the detriment of others (like the too-busy parent).
I am grateful to no longer be interested in being the ingenue. I hope I get to be the one who grows old and is surrounded by books and friends, to be the feeder of birds, adored by children. I hope to be the one who nurtures and speaks kindly and wisely. I know that if I could ever become that particular type of hero, I will have to be intentional about it. I am so often a flaky, self-centered bat. But (and here is hope) characters can change for the better. It will involve much sacrifice and many hard-earned lessons in restraint and gratitude, but that will be its own story…
Sometimes we foolishly play the part we think was written for us, but we fail to see that this is a choose-your-own-adventure. Who do you want to be? To what are you called? Great stories involve quests and enlightenments. Heroes maintain their strong characters through trials. What are you seeking? Is it a noble quest? Are your traits admirable? Are you the victim of an evil plot? What could you do rise above the circumstances without bitterness and fear? Are you fighting for your own interests or for the well-being of others? If you read your story, would you love the language of your character? How shall we work together to create a happy ending?