Saturday, March 24, 2012

One Significant Value of Fiction

The last several days in my immediate family have been challenging ones, characterized by a frightening accident, a call to 911, and too much time spent in a hospital. While I will not go into the details of the accident, the hospitalization, etc., in this post, I want to, rather, reflect on the value of fiction writing in our lives.

When unexpected, or surprising events occur, we are often confronted with fundamental questions about how we are living our lives, what really matters, and so on. Earlier this evening, I began reading Anne Lamott’s 2010 novel, Imperfect Birds, and although I’m only 62 pages into it at this point, it is proving to me one of the most important reasons that fiction matters in our hyper social-network driven world.

Fiction, good fiction, reminds us that we all live complicated and mixed-bag lives. We all struggle with questions of identity, of our places in the world, of whether or not we are doing what we should do, or were meant to do, and the like. Good fiction – and, Imperfect Birds is absolutely in that category – reminds us of our shared imperfections, our shared continual quest to figure out how best to navigate this gift (that sometimes feels like a curse) we’ve been given called life. By recognizing the humanity and the faults and the glories and the foibles in fictional characters, we are (if we are lucky) able to take a step back to reexamine our own lives and ask: Well, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world that I did x, y, or z? Perhaps I can forgive myself – perhaps I can forgive my mother, father, brother, sister, lover, spouse – for doing something that was hurtful, childish, annoying, or, rude?

Early in this novel a character suggests that perhaps we are living in “the sixth day,” evoking the creation story. In other words, perhaps God is not quite done. We are here already… we are living in this environment that He (or She) created, but it is not yet time for God to rest. Because the work is not yet done. I like this idea. I like it a lot. It almost provides an answer to those questions many of us so often ask: “How could a loving and caring God allow (fill-in-the-blank) to happen?” Well, maybe it’s because the job’s not quite done yet. Maybe we are all living in the sixth day.

Each of us will encounter unexpected challenges throughout our lives, and each of us will have a moment (or more) of feeling shell-shocked that whatever happened just happened. A close friend dies or is seriously injured or is diagnosed with cancer; a simple misstep leads to days in the hospital and weeks of recovery and pain; the dog you are walking lunges after a rat and pulls you down to a painful fall in the process. These things happen. They do.

Good fiction reminds us that we are not alone in this fate. We are all susceptible to the whims and fancies of… whatever one might wish to call it. Fate? God’s will? Bad luck? Good luck? The point is, stuff happens. Our job is to learn from it when it does. Our job is to recognize the humanity in one another. Our job is to empathize and listen and learn and take heed. Because tomorrow, it may well be me or you or the other person reading these scribblings who is caught by surprise and suddenly learns that stuff happens. Whenever, wherever.

We persevere. We go on, as Beckett notably observed. We adjust, learn, recalibrate.

Fiction helps remind us that we are not alone in the doing. Fiction creates a safe space in which we can face the scary realities we may well have to face in our own lives when we are least prepared for it, because, let’s face it – that’s when they come.

So, cheers and thank you to the great fiction writers of the world. And, while I’m at it, cheers and thank you to the great nonfiction writers of the world, because they often can (and do) achieve the same purpose. (I almost wrote porpoise, by the way… just a side note.)

Cheers, writers! You tell stories that remind us of our shared humanity; of our strengths, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and our charms. You remind us that we are all on this crazy trek together – like it or not.

This evening, as bedtime nears, I look forward to reading a few more pages of Imperfect Birds, and then climbing into bed with my lovely wife and thanking whomever for all the blessings of our lives. Hardships happen – of course – but they are not the whole of existence. They are bumps in the road. We move on, persevere, keep writing our own stories, and, embrace what is, and what’s next.