On Homemade Art and Stories

Beside my desk, on the wall to the right, hangs a work of art. It is four pieces of construction paper taped together with orange tape; each piece of paper is a different color. The art makes a sort of lopsided and sideways T, and it tells a story and invites the viewer into a world. Across the top is a railroad track, a restaurant below, a windmill and horse and — to the right, where the length of the sideways T extends, mountains and cars and a rocket. My daughter gave it to me on my birthday this year, in the way children have of giving you something they made, and I made a frame for this lopsided T of a picture, stained the wood, hung it beside my desk. It hangs as a reminder, as I write, to make worlds and tell stories. It reminds me, too, of something I would have made as a child. As children we are storytellers and story makers, and I wanted something to remind myself of that, and this was the perfect thing.

I know that “story” is a buzzword now, used in marketing and data analysis, politics and current events and, thankfully, even literary circles. I can’t help but wonder where story has grown so popular because of our loss of it as a culture: that is, the loss of a metanarrative and unifying story with unifying ethics, morals, a unifying telos or end of humanity and each person individually. That is, I am convinced the more society talks about anything — be it story, identity, or truth — it’s a good sign that we lack whatever we’re obsessed about, like a group of starving men and how they will, inevitably, fantasize about food. Our society does not have this unifying story, so we talk about stories without knowing what to do about them, but without a common story we don’t even have a common language to speak to one another.

But we cannot escape that we are storytellers, or we once were, as the picture on my wall asserts. And we know we want stories, we watch them many evenings or binge them on weekends. We also want them, I believe, for our own lives. Or rather, we have them for our lives whether we realize this or not, and we want control over them, and to squeeze the meaning out of them, to realize what this world with its commutes and coffee, email and exercise, sleep and lack thereof, is all for. Yet, we cannot pull our stories out of the ground, fresh and new and ready to take home. Instead, we find ourselves with an amalgam of stories already, bringing the stories of consumerism and success to stories of faith and religion, mixing them and wondering where the narrative lies.

Of course, the consumerist story is one of accumulation. I think of buying a pair of running shoes: I could spend a week’s worth of work on this activity, researching reviews and materials, as if this buying decision somehow validates me. Or, if you’re not a researcher but more of a spender, I think of the evidence of accumulation in our garages and closets, and that self-storage is a $38 billion industry in the U.S. That’s about twice that of the entire music industry in our country. 

And if you are not accumulating products, we are desperate to accumulate experiences, or that seems to be the case form the modest amounts of time I spend on Facebook or Instagram, where our status is measured by the meals we eat and the trips we take. I rarely see posts sitting in meetings or answering emails, which are two activities that take up enormous amounts of my day. This is another story, and a distinctly American one, as if our highest end is to enjoy — or the pursuit of happiness.

This colors my faith, and if I have enough savvy to avoid thinking of God as Santa Claus, which I sometimes do, it’s easy to think of him as therapist or life coach, someone who exists so that I can be fully empowered, fully myself. But whatever truth there is to this, my vision of being fully myself generally falls into one of the consumerist and accumulation camps, with a vocation thrown in for good measure: I no longer have to worry about finances, or meetings and emails, and I have time to write, to sit outside on long mornings enjoying coffee, to philosophize. I find it strange that God isn’t more focused on my own empowerment and, the idea that we often confuse with empowerment, comfort.

A story begins, as I remember a professor telling me in grad school, with what a character wants. Specifically, she said, “To find a story, find someone who wants something and can’t have it.” This is partially why the consumerist-accumulation story is so dissatisfying, apart from deeper issues of what makes a human satisfied: it’s too easy. Any story that can be solved by cutting back at Starbucks and saving up isn’t one that will win our hearts. So, it shouldn’t guide our lives, either.

Think of your favorite stories. I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls this year and was reminded how Robert wanted to fight for freedom and win the war, but he really wanted love. I was recently brought to tears by The Color Purple when Celie’s sister Nettie, who we thought was lost, comes home. The scene was a resurrection, a yearning for life. 

A character wants something. This is where I see the story can diverge from wanting new running shoes and into the realm of faith. After all, this is the question Jesus asks again and again of almost everyone he meets: “What do you want me to do for you?” James K.A. Smith writes that this is the fundamental question of discipleship: what do you want? He goes on to write that our wants and longings are at the core of our identities, but I would amend his statement to say that are what launch our stories. To paraphrase Donald Miller, if we want the kingdom, we live a very different story than if we want a Lexus. Good literature does this. I quoted just two books I read recently, both old books, because good literature re-orients our desires to what is real and true or, if a tragedy, warns us away from those desires that will destroy us. Good stories are not about saving up for new cars, or if they are, the author knows the car means much, much more than a conveyance.

And this idea finally makes sense of the C.S. Lewis quote that we love to bandy about without knowing exactly what it means: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…We are far too easily pleased.” We are too easily pleased because if we do not want enough, we do not live a true and beautiful story. 

There is nothing more serious than a story. We need such stories to re-orient ourselves toward what is real in this world, toward our deepest desires, so that we can live true, good stories. There is much to thinking about the stories we are living but it starts with this: What do you want? So it becomes a circle. We drink stories to orient our desires, and our desires shape our stories, our real stories in the here and now. 

The picture hangs to my left so I remember this, and I remember it, and I remember it. I grew up drawing such pictures and telling such stories — stories of love and hope, of sacrifice and, yes, violence. Today, I want to tell such stories because they are true, because they tell us what is most real in this world, but mostly because I see my desires drift from beauty and love to a new pair of running shoes far too easily. I want to desire more, because my desires shape the story I’m living. I want to live a story of beauty and truth and goodness, of hope and sacrifice and even pain in the cause of the kingdom. But I cannot get there, I cannot get my desires high enough, without a story to reorient me — even if it’s the thick and lopsided story that a seven year old drew hanging beside my desk. 

On Identity and Hiking

I like to think myself cultured, and this means I check the news and have opinions on it, and I read books, both old and new.

One of the books I’m reading is The Seven Basic Plots, a tome attempting to not only condense stories into their seven archetypal plots, but to answer why we tell stories in the first place. Coupling this book with the daily news, which disseminates content by telling stories, drives me to an exercise less about identifying plots and more about identifying wants and needs.

Stories, of course, begin with these wants and these needs. A man needs to get home from war: we have The Odyssey. A woman wants a loving, exciting relationship. Anna Karenina. A man wants to catch the white whale. Moby Dick.

What do the news stories say about us? What is our collective story based on the headlines?

Many of the headlines are about power, and who has it and who doesn’t. Underneath this, however, and coinciding with the stratification of politics and society, is a constant need to say who aligns with who.

For thousands of years, two primary factors have helped us understand who aligns with who: religion and proximity. The former rooted a person in a specific story, with a specific understanding of what’s gone wrong and how to overcome it. Christianity points to original sin and the need for redemption. Buddhism points to our ceaseless wanting and the need to overcome it by detachment. Religion gives its adherents practices to embody, and these practices both reinforce the story and bind the adherents together.

Proximity, or better, community – whether via religion, the state, the family, or all three – gives people a chance to see themselves in the whole. Again, in the frame of story, my gifts complement the character next to me, whether brother or wife or neighbor, as we work together for the common good. This common good often meant taking up arms against the city nearby coming to attack, or sharing our bounty because we’ll need someone to share with us next year. Communities had a common destiny: what I did affected what would happen to you.

Over the second half of the 20th century, these longstanding edifices finally crumbled. They had been tottering for some time. Religion dutifully exited the public square, both pushed out and willingly setting up its own bookstores and culture apart from the mainstream, and ended reduced to the realm of personal piety.

With rising incomes and insurance, we no longer have a common destiny with our neighbors. Accompany this with advances in technology and travel, and Americans are more transient than ever – and even less bound to their neighbors and a common destiny. We are half a continent away from our families, and even the glue of water-cooler gossip has weakened as teammates work from homes thousands of miles away.

Not that I am a Luddite, or too much of one. I like the ability to occasionally work from home. Water cooler communities  were only ever the few small bricks holding this idea of a shared destiny together, anyway. They were signs of its imminent collapse.

Yet, these changes lead us to where we are today: self-formed communities based on overlap of our own personalized, individual “good.” We identify with those who identify with us and form communities as a result. This leads to the rise of identify politics – self formed communities based on identity. Identity politics have and are serving a purpose when they give voice to the voiceless. Nonetheless, self-forming communities lack the diversity and resilience of those old-time communities that religion and proximity could create, especially with the shared destinies they provided.

Today, if my neighbor goes hungry, what is that to me? This is a new phenomenon in the world.

The deeper spiritual malady behind such self-formed communities is that they lack resilience and are ever-changing. We don’t have shared stories, and when we lose our shared stories we actually lose our foundation, our roots. We don’t understand where to go or what to do: how to live out our stories.

We don’t know who we are.

This is why our news stories are hyper-focused today on who aligns with who. We lack identity. We need to know with whom we align so we can know who we are. What is our shared outcome. To put it another way, society most longs for that which it most lacks. Like a group of hikers on trail too long who cannot stop talking about cheeseburgers and pie, we cannot stop talking about who we are because we have no idea.

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.

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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.

On Fairy Tales

Last night I was giving Ellis a bath when she told me, “You fight the choices [that] you make.” Sometimes I don’t know if I’m talking to a two-year old or some otherworldly sage.

Lately she has been role-playing Rapunzel and insisting that the rest of us play along. I don’t know how many times I have been injured and then healed by Rapunzel’s magical tears. In the Disney version (of which Ellis is particularly partial to), Eugene cuts Rapunzel’s hair. Ellis has captured an appropriate look of horror and shock after I pretend to cut her hair, mimicking the movie. It is hard to watch her without laughing. We have already discussed her acting career.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell Ellis, about whether the stories we tell her are true: whether they embody a greater metanarrative, or have little to offer besides romantic love. And, this means criticizing and judging storybooks and Disney movies, trying to hold up the ones that point to something great, point to redemption through substitutional love, and rejecting the many stories out there which, while well-intentioned, do nothing to stir her imagination and give her a greater sense of reality.

I’ve decided that I like the Rapunzel story. In fact, most fairy tales are more able to tap into the metanarrative of life than many modern stories, I think. Or, as Chesterton said: fairy tales aren’t true because there are dragons; they are true because the dragon can be defeated. At least, he said something along those lines. And the ending of Rapunzel: Eugene chooses death in order to free his love, in order to release her from her captor’s power. No, he doesn’t die in the end, but is only brought back to life by Rapunzel’s tears, by her suffering. Sure, the idea of a Christ-figure is muddy at best, but the overall structure of most fairy tales is based on the passion narrative (the quest, the suffering, the death, the redemption), and has at its core this idea of sacrificial love.

Fairy tales understand that there is real evil, or often a real curse which must be overcome. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia may be the last great example for children. And, I find that Ellis, with her child’s heart, is much more interested in stories that present good and evil, suffering and redemption and love, than she is in other stories. No, she would not put it in such terms, and we are careful to protect her from stories that are beyond her age. Yet, even now she likes the stories where something is at stake, where there is a demarcation between good and evil, where there is more to the story than being good or getting what you want.

I want Ellis to know such stories because I want her to live such a story: one where she experiences sacrificial love and then takes the great risk of sacrificing for others, one where being good is not the end goal but the by-product of living in a great story, fighting evil in its many forms, and always pursuing what is beautiful, what is good, and what is true. Then, in 20 or 30 or even 50 years, she’ll still be able to see the world with enough clarity to utter even wiser sayings than, “You fight the choices that you make.”