I’ve been reading Dr. William Lane Craig’s book ‘Time and Eternity’, and all the discussion about the nature of time has had me thinking about some interesting hypotheticals.
Imagine you were created just a moment ago, but with all the memories (both cognitive and otherwise), skills, attributes and experiences that you have now. Suppose you weren’t aware of this fact – would this make any meaningful difference to the way you live your life?
I don’t actually think it makes much difference, if any at all. Why? Because regardless of whether or not we exist and parse time from birth onwards, we spend every waking moment continuing a narrative.
In life, we’re guided by our memories, skills, attributes and experiences as we live and work towards certain goals and dreams. We’re the protagonists of our own story, trying to deal with the wild world all around us.
I think it’s for this reason that narratives are so compelling to us.
Life imitates art
Of course, stories have been used to communicate meaning for centuries. Consider traditional lore and mythology (the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans; even the stories of the Dreamtime) and the stories that frame the values and attitudes of those cultures. Consider religion – the parables of Jesus are a brilliant example of stories used to illustrate principles about God and humanity. Consider also Aesop’s Fables, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In modern times we’ve got literature, art, television and film that continue in this rich heritage.
Given that our lives follow a thread through time, it’s a trivial logical jump to explain why stories are so effective. Just like the characters and journeys we see in stories, our lives have their own main and supporting casts. The most effective narratives have characters who mirror the characters in our lives; these characters become emblematic of the values they intend to teach.
We seldom stop there with narratives – these characters then become models that we use to model and eventually shape our own identity. The Good Samaritan: compassion personified. King Arthur: courage and honour typified. Atticus Finch: justice and equality exemplified.
And of course, building character requires us to chisel away the undesirable bits. Consider the haughtiness of Luke 16’s Rich Man, the hypocrisy of Chaucer’s Pardoner and the stinginess of Ebenezer Scrooge (timely?). The haunting spectre of these infamous characters creates a sort of societal pressure against developing the traits these were (and still are) hated for.
Modelling the possible
Beyond the values and ideals we see in narratives and through life, the tropes and plotlines we’re exposed to become a part of the way we evaluate what’s possible while we build our own stories.
Our exposure to such narratives is amplified somewhat in the era of social media and the internet. Consider the rags-to-riches stories of Ben Carson, Susan Boyle, and the Williams sisters; these are just a few that have captured the public’s imagination in recent times. Consider the now-immortalised Slumdog Millionaire, an immediate box-office hit.
There’s far more of course. Stories of persistence (e.g. Leo’s Oscar), determination (e.g. Redmond’s 400m in Barcelona) and defying the odds (e.g. Leicester City’s title in 2015-16) are written and retold as the years continue to roll on.
Their power lies in their ability to inspire hope. Of course, it’s not realistic to expect these to be repeated – not everyone has the intellect of Ben Carson, the voice of Susan Boyle, or the athletic talent of Venus and Serena Williams (and honestly, who in the world has the good fortune of Jamal Malik?). Indeed, some might argue hope is a dangerous thing to hold onto (cue Red from the Shawshank Redemption), but for many, it’s the only thing keeping their wheels moving.
Seeing the world through stories
Values, character and plotlines make stories an irreplaceable part of the protagonist’s kitbag.
Could it be, though, that the most important tool in the kitbag is simply recognising you’re in the middle of building your story?
Our stories have started, had incredible climaxes and disheartening nadirs, reached major milestones, and are not yet finished. Our stories are often intertwined with each other. They’re potentially a source of inspiration that we might not see, understand or recognise right away. And of course, the Writer is still writing, and there remains plenty of blank space on the page, waiting to be filled.
Let’s live like we believe it.
Featured Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash
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