This is a paper I wrote for a class, but I thought it was pretty interesting.
There is something about a story. Human interactions are relational and thus, stories. It is something that, I would argue, is necessary to be a human. As wonderful as dogs are, they don’t tell stories, and that this is worth noting.
Stories stem from something that is uniquely human – words. Words, by themselves, are useless. I can list off a successive group of words: elephant, music, table, railroad, but without context, these words don’t convey any of the meaning I have attached to them. You could read these and understand absolutely nothing that is occurring in my mind. We might not even envision the same elephant. The railroad might be running north in my mind and yours could be running south.
If I put them in some context, however, I can tell you a tale about a man and a woman sitting at a table, drinking and talking. Music wafts through the air and they see, beyond the railroad, Hills like White Elephants. If you’ve read Hemmingway’s work you know that these things can connect to create an impactful story. Without context however, the words have no meaning. The most curious aspect of words is that together they form language and give meaning. Through that we can do amazing things.
One of my favorite stories is the story of the Tower of Babel. This story, in some ways, is a testament to the power of language. It was enough that God had a response to it. Humans, so sophisticated in their language, elicited a response from God. In some ways, our prayers are redemption of the misuse of language that occurred in the Tower of Babel.
Much in the way our prayers can redeem the Tower of Babel, our stories can as well. Stories always have characters. They can’t not have characters. Language dictates that we have to have an agent and an object for any sentence that doesn’t use a to be verb. Because reality can’t be construed in anything other than equals (to be), doers (agents), objects of the “do” (objects), and recipients (indirect objects) it means that we as people are always in relation.
Because our lives are always in relation they can be viewed as stories. Stories are always the relationship of the main character to the world around them. The world or reality, populated with other characters, is a constant interaction. Characters can range from chairs to elephants, but they’re all in relationship to the main character – you.
It might seem that this is an egocentric way to view the world, but I don’t think that it is at all. Earnest Hemmingway once bet his friends that he could write a complete story in six words. The words: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The words can take a journey about a broken family with child who recently died, but to me, they aren’t complete. The words don’t in themselves convey this story, we have to make it. We generate this story and we are involved. We feel for the protagonists and immediately their world is brought into ours.
We don’t fully know their world. We never can. I can’t know the pain that this mother felt or the sadness of the father. What I can know is that these people have lost a child and in my interpretation of the story, they are grieving. So I bring them into my world and try to understand them, but I can never know them entirely. The only story you know fully is your own, which is made up of your relationship to the other characters.
The protagonist of every story is you. I don’t mean this in a contrived or cliché way. I mean that you can’t experience anyone else’s story – you can only relate to them. Everything you experience is in relationship to another person. You draw them into yourself. Some people or things you draw more deeply than others. Spouses draw each other close but I can only draw the chair I’m sitting on so far into my experience.
I’ll never forget my brother – but this chair I’ll forget. I’ll forget the uncomfortable way my belt loops on my jeans are digging into me. So, some relationships are deeper than others. I’ve found in that relationships become life-changing when you find yourself staring into the face of another. I think this only happens through story.
Whether we interact with another person in the process of our unfolding story or we read the words of a master writer we can truly engage the face of another. It will deeply peer into us – through the portal that is our eyes. When we engage the other we pull them deep into us. We relate. This gaze can be one that inspires horror or love, but I would argue that the horror inspired in my by Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place is a good horror and the love inspired in me by C.S. Lewis’ Till we have Faces is a good love.
We shouldn’t be afraid of our stories – our lives – because moments of them might inspire horror. In the moment the terror may seem all-consuming, but afterwards, the knowing that comes will be a benefit. The same happens with love. We shouldn’t be afraid to experience it because of past hurts. Yes, we should be careful, but we shouldn’t be closed off. Love is a good thing. The face of another is important and can bring knowing in all situations. We can learn to know what to do and what not to do.