Hurricane Harvey struck Houston about a week ago. As I write, Hurricane Irma is slashing the Caribbean and moving steadily towards Florida. Perhaps it can seem insensitive to suggest that the inanimate pages of a book might have anything to do with the immense suffering that so many people are dealing with.
However, I will argue here that the opposite is true. In times of deep tragedy, stories are shown to be indispensable, because stories offer a secure and hopeful way for suffering people to feel, understand, and redeem their pain.
Stories Affirm Pain
Stories are not meant to be an escape from the world. Even when reading a good fantasy novel, one feels more engaged with life, not less. Stories offer a way for readers to dialogue with the tragic mysteries of life in full safety. We live through characters, exploring what it feels like to lose a loved one or be devastated by war, without actually having to live through the event. We live vicariously in the characters we follow.
To read a story is much like submerging into the ocean in a scuba suit, which is far different than being forced underwater without one. A good story, confined to the theater stage or the pages of the book, plunges us into an ocean of suffering to explore in safety. We can examine sickness and pain, death and depression, without having to pay the cost of truly living through such an event. We can look at life as a spectator, from the outside looking in.
A story does not ask people to forget that the world is suffering, it doesn’t ask a reader to escape this world and live with his head in the clouds. Instead, a story, by representing the world as it truly is, reminds us that every human feels pain. Whether they are heroes or villains, courageous or terrified, people in the Caribbean are human and they feel hurt. And they need help. Don’t bury your head in a book to escape the suffering of the world. Bury your head in a book to understand the suffering.
Stories Prepare us for Pain
In the introduction to one of his Ted Talks, John Green explains the phenomenon of paper towns. One town, Agloe, NY, was placed on an old map, even though it didn’t actually exist. This was intentional, as the map company could use the fake town as proof of copyright infringement (a plagiarized map would also have the fake town on it). However, decades later, it was discovered that Agloe truly did exist. People kept driving to this spot, expecting the town on the map, and eventually, someone built it. John Green relates this to the desire of a novelist, who desires that “the stuff that [they] write down on paper can change the actual world we live in…”
This is the storyteller’s hope: That imagined stories will leap off the page and change the people reading them. That a fiction story will change the nonfiction world. As a book or movie portrays a character thrown into a tragic situation and learning to survive (even thrive) in that situation, the listener learns how to deal with their own tragedies. A story functions as a training ground, where the listener asks “what would I do in this situation?” and grows into a more developed person. It is like being a student pilot, flying in a simulator so you can learn without the danger of crashing a real plane. Every time you read a book or watch a movie, you come out as a changed person, for good or for ill.
Stories Redeem Pain
Finally, a story has the incredible job of redeeming pain, of demonstrating that immense suffering can have immense value. This is the foundation for most stories: A character is forced into a painful situation that they must overcome, coming out a changed individual, better than before (or worse, if you’re reading a tragedy).
In the epic story of our lives, we often find ourselves in the middle of the story. We are still suffering, weighed down by life’s problems. Or we are at the beginning of a long uphill climb, when a problem has just surfaced and we know that it will lead to consequences that will continue for decades. This is where we are at with Hurricane Irma, in the middle of a long story, hurting.
Yet, there is a hope that stories remind us of. And that hope is contained in a story’s ending. There is nothing quite like finishing a book or a movie. Nothing quite like the feeling of being able to look back on an entire story and see what it was all leading towards. Of being able to see why all the events mattered.
Finishing a book reminds us that one day the history of this world will come to its end. That there will come a time when we can look back on the history of the world, seeing every victory and tragedy as God sees it: Bringing glory to himself. Every time we finish a book, a movie, a play, it should be a miniature reminder that the end is coming. And to those in Christ, this is the greatest hope for anyone undergoing suffering. Knowing that the pain will end, and knowing that your suffering is not in vain, but is for the glory of God.
What story teaches us about Hurricane Irma:
- Real people are suffering in ways unimaginable and indescribable. They need help, regardless of race, social class, religion, or any other distinction. Reading/watching stories of people undergoing loss can give us a small taste of the pain that many people are swallowing whole.
- Remember, whether you are in Florida or Canada, that stories have taught you that pain can be survived, and that you can come out of suffering as a stronger person. This is not the end.
- As finite humans, we cannot understand why God might allow this hurricane, but we can be infinitely comforted by the recognition that this suffering is not meaningless, but is mysteriously used by God for His glory. There is nothing more unbearable than meaningless suffering, and, thankfully, this is not what is occurring. The true ending of our life story, when it is held in Christ, will be magnificent.
Hurricane Irma is horrifically tragic. Still, God is in control, and we long for the day when our broken Earth can be renewed. With these truths in mind, please pray for those affected by the hurricane.