Monday, April 15, 2013

All good stories are Love stories.

Stories are the bones that structure our lives, and I've always been a bit of a bone collector. 

I like the odd-shaped ones -- the ones with strange whorls, and ridges where you'd expect valleys.

Like, I remember the hippie guy with so many beads and so few teeth who came to visit the store where I worked in Peru, and told me that the dolphins in the lake were spirits, and that he'd been able to talk to them. Or how about that Navy Seal who was in the Amazon to train guys at the local Navy base for some joint DEA thing, and thought it'd be cool to talk spread-legged to a bunch of high school kids after going for a swim in only his boxers. Man, he really stuck out (wink).

I was always drawn to those stories -- to making friends with oddballs like that kid who'd come to Peru to live with his missionary grandmother after getting kicked out of military school, and immediately went about setting up a marijuana plantation out in the jungle. I didn't join him in his business venture, but what a story, amiright? And despite my nearly pathological desperation to fit in with the "cool kids" when I went off to college in Canada, I nonetheless still gravitated to the weirdos. The freaks and geeks. The Artists and storytellers just honest and crazy enough to live a narrative well outside the lines of normal.

It's no surprise, then, that when I sat down to make up my own stories, I gravitated to the strange ones: the Hutterite boys who violated colony rules; the mentally-damaged man who collected bottlecaps all day; the Orthodox Priest less concerned with profanity and sexual propriety than with grace.

I knew that when I threw twenty-two of these stories into a book and published it, I'd really piss some people off (having already lost my teaching job at a private, Christian school in part because of a few stories I'd previously posted on this website). So it was no real surprise when a friend told me yesterday that he'd been reading and loving my book, but that one of the stories, "Sanctuary," had made him really mad. He attends a Christian mega-church, after all, and "Sanctuary" is clearly a critique of some of the ugliness I've seen and experienced inside the homogenizing mega-business that the North American Protestant Church has often become.

I was able to talk through the story with him and I think I he believed me when I said that I'd not intended it as the final word on the Christian church experience -- just one fragment of the whole. But I can understand his frustration.

The thing about stories is that there's no real good argument against them. 

A good story sucks you in, carries you along, and then deposits you at the other side of some sort of moral question -- forcing you to experience it not as yourself, but as an Other. Good stories are empathy-machines, and life is a lot easier if you don't have to empathize with the sorts of people you've always thought of as those guys. That makes stories dangerous. Dangerous, and absolutely necessary.
 
The tagline on the back of my book says that though my stories range widely in content and scope, they are unified in the affirmation that life, despite its inherent and inevitable tragedies, is beautiful. I suppose the same could be said of people. We're all living these tragic, beautiful lives, and the thing that can show us our commonality is story. It is with shared story that we build community. It is with our stories that we find our meaning, and our love.

Listening to other people's stories is an act of love.

Religion is a story. Faith is a story. Birth, death, sex, life -- all a story. And when I join my story for a while with these Others, I experience the world as they experience it. I come to understand them a little better, and the brutality of Simplifying Judgments becomes impossible. Love grows in stories.

This, I think, is the highest aspiration of all good art. To wrestle with an Other through the most gripping questions of our existence, and in so doing to engender love.

I don't have to like a protagonist's choices, or even agree with them. But by sharing their story and understanding what it's like to BE them, I can appreciated a little better the lovely bones of this horrible, wonderful, mysterious world.

I'll leave you, then, with a story. Today, on the recommendation of one of my film-buddies, I watched a Norwegian movie called OSLO, AUGUST 31ST. [Mini-spoiler] It starts out with a suicide attempt, so if that's a trigger for you, my apologies.

But MAN! Color me gut-punched.

With a paradoxically complex simplicity, writer/director Joachim Trier let me feel the despair of his drug-addict protagonist, Anders, in a way that no mere recounting of the facts could (or has). I lived the moments of that story with Anders and in the end I felt what he felt -- not a sentimentalized, explosive eruption of drug-induced emotional intensity, but rather a dull, despairing numbness.

I found myself unable to judge his actions... all I could do was understand him, and wish that someway, somehow, it could be different.

This, I think, is what love looks like. To walk alongside someone else. To feel what they feel. To offer whatever help you can, and feel the tragedy of what you can't.

Stories are pieces of empathy. Stories are love.

4 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more about stories & empathy, which is why I think literacy (whether visual, written, or verbal) is so very important. Avid readers become the Other as they read.

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  2. Beautiful. And I agree. I think we learn to have empathy for ourselves through stories, too. I know that I am kinder to myself when I have just finished writing a section of my narrative than at any other time. (I am a survivor of extreme abuse, and am in the process of recovering memories that have been repressed for 15-25 years, so a great deal of my story is new to me, too.)

    Thank you for sharing.

    (BTW, I found your blog through your guest post on ElizabethEsther's blog--thank you for that post, too.)

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    1. Thank you, Jessa. I'm glad you've connected with my writing. I wish you well as you come to terms with a painful past, for a more peaceful future.

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  3. "Stories are pieces of empathy. Stories are love."
    What a wonderful post :) Thank you for such thoughtful and true observations. I always love a book with characters that I can relate to, empathize with, root for, and care about. I will definitely check out your recommendation (Oslo August 31st). I have come across a fabulous book that I have to recommend after reading your post called “Shanghai Love” by author Layne Wong (http://laynewong.com/). It is an unlikely love story between a Chinese herbalist and a Jewish refugee looking for safety from Nazi Germany. The herbalist, Peilin, was betrothed to a man who was killed before their wedding but tradition and honor forced the marriage along anyways. She is sent to Shanghai to manage his family’s herbal shop. Shanghai is also Henri’s destination as he has graduated from medical school as Hitler is rising to power. He flees to Shanghai where he’s befriended by Ping, Peilin’s brother. Through her kindness, Henri becomes fascinated with Chinese herbs as well as the exotic culture surrounding him. Both characters, situations, and cultures are those I have little in common with but the book does transport you and allows you to walk in their shoes for a little while. Hope you will give it a read :)

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