It is difficult to understate the importance of story. Stories can expand our world of experience to include a great deal more of the “real world” than we could ever experience in our own lives. They also free us from the constraints of the “real world” and expose us to things not yet imagined which give our lives a new level of depth. In the words of Dr. Donald T. Williams, “A scholar’s (or any serious reader’s) books are not only the tools of his trade; they are also his environment, his friends, and his security blanket. He never feels quite at home unless they are all displayed on their shelves, surrounding his desk with their familiar, well-worn covers. Though they are legion, he knows the position of each one and can reach out his hand to it almost with his eyes closed. Each has a different role to play, and some play more than one. Some are allies, troops he can muster in support of the Cause. Some are sparring partners against which he sharpens his wits. Some are teachers whose well of wisdom never runs dry. Some are librarians, efficient repositories of information. Some are merely playmates for idle moments. Some take all these roles in turn.”
Though Dr. Williams is here speaking of literature in general, I find that his concept of the roles played by books in the life of the scholar is applicable to the roles of stories in the lives of each one of us. In his time with us at Summit Semester Dr. Williams has taught us a great many things, but I intend to focus on a topic that, though only briefly touched upon, is of the most subtle significance: The impact of story upon who we are.
Telling and listening to stories is how we figure out who we are. For many of us, some of our earliest childhood memories are of stories we were told and how they made us feel. Do you remember the disgust you felt at the selfishness of Cinderella’s stepsisters? Or the awe inspired by the courage of Sir Gawain? Do you remember that your first concepts of sacrifice, loyalty, and justice were formed from substance of fairy tales? These stories gave us our first heroes, our first concept of who we wanted to be. What’s more, they gave us our first villains, instilling within us a deep hatred of darkness, evil, and selfishness. These stories leave lasting marks upon us, they become part of us, grafted deep into our identity. To hate the Darkness and love the Light, to give our lives for a cause that is worth dying for, to be repulsed by cowardice and to protect the helpless, to stand fast in the face of overwhelming odds, to fight injustice, to protect, to defend, to love others with a ferocity that inspires fearless action…these are values inspired in us by story. Deep down, no matter how old we are, we still aspire to the selfless courage of the knight.
The impact of story on who we are goes beyond instilling us with a deeply rooted set of ideals, however. Whether fiction or nonfiction, stories are a path to self-discovery, a tool of self examination, and a measuring stick of character growth. As children we would choose to portray our favorite characters in play because we identified ourselves in them, or rather, because we wanted them to be identified in us. They embodied characteristics that we admired, and therefore they become our models, our mentors, our heroes. In choosing “who we will be,” as children we are truly choosing who we want to be, who we will admire, who we will model ourselves after. The kind of characters we identify with are formative of our own self concept. We decide who we will be based off of who we admire.
One of the most important lessons that I have learned in my adult life is the resonance of fantasy with the human soul. Yes, soul, not mind. I do believe it goes that deep. There is something about fantasy or fictional stories that allows the hearer to transcend the boundaries of our own existence and imagine something much, much more. Factual and historical accounts are limited in that they can relate only what has actually been, and cannot speak of what ought to be. Too often I have heard young adults, or even children, told to set aside fantasy and fiction in favor of more “serious minded” pursuits, told to grow up and live in the real world. Too many times I have seen this advice followed. In the past, I attempted to follow it myself. However, in distancing myself from it, I came to realize just how much I need it. Fantasy is breath to the soul, reminding us of what we already know: there is a beauty greater than we have ever seen, a power greater than we have ever known, and a joy greater than our wildest imagining.
This is only a fraction of what has gone through my head during this past week with Dr. Williams. It would take dozens of blog posts to write down everything I have learned from him, but I shall leave you with a quote from his book, Inklings of Reality, which sums up far more articulately in a single sentence what took me a blog post to convey:
If the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1) and the invisible things are understood by the things that are made (Rom. 1:20), then the things made by the creative member of that creation – especially the verbal artifacts – ought in a special way to bring the truths embodied in creation into focus.
Anne-Louise Cook has made her way to Snow Wolf Lodge from Greenville, Michigan. She takes special pleasure in learning what it means to glorify God in every aspect of her life, and delights in the holistic nature of Christianity as a truth that satisfies science and reason as well as the human desire for beauty and purpose. Her love of stories and her intention to pursue the Liberal Arts stems from a childhood of wild imagination in which she and her siblings lived a thousand adventurous lives in over 400 acres of woods and fields. Anne-Louise is wholeheartedly passionate about the ability of stories to build character, to communicate realities about the world we live in, to teach by delighting, and to inspire heroism in individuals.