On Rubber Ducks and The Iliad

This morning, I figured I’d just wash my hair rather than take a full shower. I’ve realized, over the years, that my hair will stick up in all sorts of odd ways unless I wash it in the morning—water alone won’t cut it. But I didn’t really need the full shower treatment.

My daughter came into the bathroom while I was washing it, with the exclamation, “Daddy, what are you doing?” Apparently me half-dressed and kneeling before the tub isn’t a common sight. I told her. She responded, “I bet Mrs. Duck thinks that’s pretty funny.”

I crouched there, hair dripping, for a moment. I had no idea what she meant. Then, I remembered the yellow rubber ducky two feet away from me. Mrs. Duck. Ellis plays with her every night she takes a bath. She makes up scenarios and stories and, sometimes, my wife or I get to join.

*

I never had to read The Iliad while growing up. I’m somewhat familiar with the fall of Troy, but this month I figured I ought to read it. Supposedly, the book is a classic. I have two chapters left (I’m assuming one will involve a wooden horse) and it’s been immensely enjoyable. Beyond the blood and guts (and there are lots of both), I’ve been reminded of how a myth works. How people told stories to explain ideas like fate and purpose and meaning. That the stories were factually true was not the point. The point was the meaning implicit in the story. The point was everything from entertainment to enlightenment, defining purpose to offering pleasure.

And, as my daughter reminded me, stories are still the best way we get meaning.

She knows Mrs. Duck can’t really talk or think. (Although, who would blame her if she thought otherwise? After all, we’re the ones who constantly read her stories and show her movies with talking, thinking animals.) But, the stories she’s told and played with Mrs. Duck have made the rubber toy real, in a sense. Mrs. Duck is real enough to respond to something I have done, and to make a judgment about it. As part of a story, she’s a vehicle for meaning.

It’s the same in The Iliad, as the people of Athens or other ancient city-states adopted the myth, re-told it, found their identity within it.

The same happens to us today. We tell stories about what why we’re in love or not in love; we tell stories about how we were hurt in the past and what it means for us in the present; we try to live good stories that make a difference.

We make up stories—and this is a problem of the declining fiction market—because made-up stories brush against our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, in ways that non-fiction cannot. Mrs. Duck is a fiction. She’s only rubber. Yet, she gives meaning to my daughter’s experience. The Iliad is a fiction. It gave meaning to thousands of Greeks.

I’m not convinced that we can reduce our storytelling impulse to ancient campfires and the storyteller getting laid after a particularly good tale. But I think we can conclude that stories, even made-up stories—especially made-up stories—impart meaning to our lives.

And possibility is only real if meaning is present. If our lives have no meaning, there is no possibility for them. There are only atoms and hormones. And death, one day.

May we read great stories. And may we find meaning in the fiction to embrace new possibilities for our lives and the lives around us.

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