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This is part six of the long poem "Let Me Tell You a Story." It is an ars poetica, offering an explanation in poetic form for why we tell stories. It also contains a few references to other sections of the longer poem, including a reference to a family and sailors. But it isn't necessary to understand those references to appreciate this as a separate piece of writing.

 

 

It is an important truth

by Ken Sanes

It is an important truth,
even if it is often overlooked,
that we fill our lives with stories
because the characters
                             are our second selves,
altered and intensified for our enjoyment.
As we observe them from a position of safety
outside the stories they are part of,
we deeply experience
                       the analogy to ourselves.
Inevitably, their happy endings
become our happy endings
just as their death lets us safely mourn
for our own mortality.
But stories do something else
that is essential, as well,
                even though it is also easily overlooked.
In fact, it can help explain why many of us
yearn for a different ending
for the family in the garden,
as their world collapses around them,

and why we ponder the fate of sailors
on a mission of trade and exploration
after they are carried away by a maelstrom
to the ruins of a city.
It can also help explain why we wonder:
Did they establish a settlement
                   somewhere down the coast?
Did their descendants survive a change in climate
and, millennia later, help repopulate the world?
Or did they die in the ruins of their own future?
One of the reasons we want to know
              is love.
              Not only the self-love
of seeing ourselves in the story
but also our love and compassion
for the characters themselves,
and the people they stand in for, 
in which we wish them the best,
without ulterior motive.
This is a basic principle:
when we observe
many of the characters in stories,
self- and selfless-love
                  complete each other,
giving us a chance to feel compassion
for ourselves and those around us,
which is also compassion for a suffering world.
In fact, this is an important reason
we fill our lives with stories.
It is because the characters
                        are us and not us --
they are people we know, humanity,
and mere imaginings --
and because my story is a variation on your story
just as yours is a variation on my own
and, just perhaps, because we are intermixed
in ways we intuit, but usually canít see
from our limited perspective inside ourselves.
All of which helps explain why
we are ready to hear the same story again,
about Good versus Evil,
with Love against Death, and Life against Hate,
and being truly alive in a mortal struggle
                                               with living death.
And if we choose to experience all of this
in stories that are transformed by art
                          into a source of pleasure,
with characters who are
                   beautiful, heroic, or endearing,
in invented situations that play to our desires,
and when the stakes are nothing practical at all
because it is merely a symbolic reenactment,
and if we need to take pleasure
in driving out Evil in the story
as he twists his waxed handlebar moustache
to a fine point
and swirls his cape around, laughing maniacally,
that is just part of what makes us human.
In fact, we do these things because stories
are the sigh of the oppressed creature;
they are a celebration of life
                 and a meditation on loss
as well as a way of tossing a coin
into the well of fortune.
Ultimately, they are about our own quest to be whole
                      in a life based on love,
and our yearning for a deeply humane world,
despite all the distortions of tooth and claw,
and Narcissus twisted by neurosis.
In addition, of course,
when stories are successful at mixing things up,
they help us experience
                  our own disappointed love of life,
while their puzzles to be solved
and the awe they evoke
can even stand in
for our puzzlement and wonder
at the miracle of an unsatisfactory world.
But what stories usually donít do
is help us carry the love and compassion they evoke
into the rest of our lives.
Nor do they typically show us
            how we project our inner world
onto characters and other people,
while we refuse to see
the analogy to ourselves
without confusion.
These, and other, limitations can turn
the counterfeit utopia of stories
                        into an opium of the imagination,
a cry of impotence by jilted lovers,
            and a sugar pill we take
because we are afraid of the cure
or donít know what it is.
But well-told stories plus talk of stories
can still give us a vision
that may even help us, on occasion,
avoid being drawn in
        to the maelstrom of folly in a turning world.
And they can help sensitize us to the truth about life
as we undergo our inevitable progression
from labor to tomb.
So why not
mix it up
with
          a storm and harvest,
                            morning and memory,
and the new moon with a dark sky --
when a dove or a shooting star goes by --
and someone is watching, wondering
if she will be one of the first to die.
And, yes, it is entirely rational
                   to want to see all of creation
rejoice in the marriage of the characters,
with the squirrels singing in the branches
and the stars shedding tears of joy,
because the Disney side of us
will never stop wanting a wonderful world.
Perhaps, in some moments,
when we are carried away by the story,
                       it may even seem to be
just us and the telling,
with wild nature and human nature
as twin fountains in the same garden --
and now weíre not certain
if there was also a glimpse of something
beyond the screen of the conventional meaning
or if we were just seeing the moving shadows
of our own desires.
And we wonder which was the problem:
our exile from a better world
or the fact that we are closed off from this one.

 


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