“Little Alice fell down the hole, bumped her head and bruised her soul.”
-Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”
Humans love to tell stories, irrespective of their origins or the times they live in. Parents tell stories while putting their children to bed. Strangers tell stories about themselves and become friends. Grandparents tell stories they heard from their grandparents with a wistfulness that makes you lament the passage of time.
Though we have stories about every aspect of life, the most famous ones of our times are about characters larger than life. We know, in intimate detail, the struggles of “chosen ones” to save the world. We know of the lives of kings and queens who rule with wisdom while fighting battles whose outcome will determine the freedom of all peoples. We come to expect that violent, jealous, bitter and cruel men, who aim to enslave people, will ultimately fail. Hedonism and greed for power and wealth belong to the dark. Forgiveness, love, self-restraint and selflessness are qualities that make one beautiful and of the light. Battles upon which the fate of the world rests, fought by people more powerful, brilliant and wise than the average human, are common themes in our stories.
But what of the battles of the self? What about regret for small things? What about the story of the struggles of a small life that is unlikely to ever have a voice in all the formidable forces that shape worlds? What of people like us who are not so wise, not so powerful, not so firmly seated in the light? Is there no glory to be found in our lives? Are we to be relegated to obscurity with no one to celebrate or understand the struggles we engage in every minute, although they might not be so significant in the overall scheme of the world?
I think not. Rather, every story of kings and queens, of violence, greed and desperate love is a story of the self and how it fights itself and the world. All stories are about us because all stories come from within us. The feelings, more intense, simply help us recognize an anguish of our own. The settings, more magical and strange, lead us to acknowledge the strangeness and magic of our world. If that is true, then each story is a celebration of the smallest human life and what it could be.
Perhaps this is the reason we love our characters (think Uchiha Itachi, Sirius Black) so deeply – they embody us. They might be in unfamiliar worlds, face more desperate conditions, and so struggle more evocatively, but they are us! We place upon them our own meanings and make them part of our own selves. When the storyteller begins, the characters are dark, shapeless clay. Then, he gives them a form, places some of his understanding and experience into them and sends them our way. We look at the shapes the characters have and then pour our own understanding and expectations into them and make them what we want them to be.
Considering all the joy and glory we find in stories, it is reasonable to question what the pitfalls of loving them are. At this point, we come to the danger inherent in stories. When we fall in love with characters, their achievements, sorrows and joys fuse dangerously with our own. With every little story, we are at risk of losing ourselves; pouring so much of ourselves into characters that we become empty vessels and have nothing left to live our lives with. If a story resonates too acutely with you, you might fall deep into the rabbit hole of that tale and find yourself unable to claw your way back up to where the daylight of “real life” shines through a small hole far above. If you love stories, you might have experienced the pull of this rabbit hole. You might even know people who have succumbed to this pull and find “real life” dry as dust. So we ought to treat every story and every character with care; they could change our lives. They could take us part of the way to a different world. But since we cannot exist in that world, or perhaps because that world does not exist, we might be stranded between worlds for the rest of our waking and sleeping hours.
Skeptics have mastered the art of holding stories at bay. They are never at risk of losing themselves to a “fictional” tale. But do they necessarily live better lives? I think not; they never can pour themselves into something because they dismiss the power of every story. By doing that, they can never rise beyond their own limited experience. They can never know the heart-stopping longing for a world or person that does not exist. (What does existence mean anyway?) They can never know the bittersweet joy and sadness of observing a person, other than themselves, go through life. Their lives are like rivers rushing through the mountains of reality: constrained to pass through narrow spaces between cliffs. But for those who can know the truth of stories, life is like a river in the plains; it floods over the banks, but it can also be parched dry in drought. People who know stories know death and destruction. They know the end of the world, but also that a rise beyond the end might be possible. They know danger, exhilaration, emptiness, outer space, riding across plains and living on mountains. They know the death of a loved one, the end of a character. They know the sweetness and bitterness of endings. They know many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and lovers. They chafe against the limits of existence. (Why is there no justice? Where are the true kings? Where is wisdom, beauty, magic? Why do we not know people living in worlds with three moons?) But they also contemplate the limitlessness of existence. (Stories never end. Death arrives. Beauty, joy, mystery and anguish live on, even though people – real or not – might not.)
All stories are us; we are all stories. The only small, inglorious lives are those that never deliberate over how much more life could be.