Sunday, January 6, 2008

But It Did Happen

I've been thinking quite a bit about stories--not any story in particular, but more about them as a concept and what they mean and how they work. (This is something writers do.) One aspect that has occupied more of my attention recently is what makes a story worthwhile. When I was younger, I thought that a story was valuable only insofar as it reflected some higher (e.g. Christian) reality or principle. Basically, I looked at everything as an allegory and evaluated its merit based on how it functioned on that level, or I distilled it into a set of consistent, easy-to-understand divine rules.

For example, the band Five Iron Frenzy has a song titled "The Day We Killed", which is about the Indian massacre at the battle of Wounded Knee. I now think it is one of the band's strongest songs, but when I first listened to it, I thought it was missing something. I kept struggling to find the song's allegorical significance--did Crazy Horse represent God? Was it really a metaphor for human disobedience and destruction?--because I didn't think the tragedy of one group of people slaughtered by another could really be that important.

This mindset affected the way I read the Bible, too. While that might not initially seem like a bad approach (the Bible does have lots of parables and allegories, after all), it led me to discount the individual human struggle that drives so many of the Bible's stories; sure it must have been rough for Job while everything he knew and loved was destroyed, but it turns out okay for him in the end, so all his pain and suffering isn't that big a deal, right?

When I encountered someone who was struggling or suffering, I wasn't quite sure what to do with them, because I assumed that everything would work out in the end, and the waiting between now and whenever the solution or repayment came was really pretty insignificant.

What I had not learned then, though, is that most (or all, depending on how you look at it) of life is lived in the waiting time, and that by minimizing the importance the waiting (so I could skip ahead to what I thought of as the good parts), I was ignoring what really makes life what it is.

So now then: How does all of that tie in with the nature of stories?

All the things of life--pain, sadness, isolation, heartbreak, and tragedy, as well as joy, love, and fulfillment--are completely significant, not because you can glean a lesson or principle from them, but simply because they do (or could) happen. Stories give us the opportunity to celebrate and grieve over how vitally important everything is.

And every story works differently: The movement, rules, and internal logic of one story might be irrelevant, or even contradict, how another story unfolds. This does not, however, mean that one is necessarily better or more important than any other, or that the specific truth of one need harmonize with another; stories remind us that the world is somehow big enough to accomodate all of them, all at once.

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