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On a recent Saturday afternoon I found myself in a position familiar to high school teachers everywhere—holed up in a dim corner of my house with a stack of papers to grade before the end of the weekend. I was working feverishly while trying to forget, for a moment, the daily worries and stresses we all carry, and failing miserably at both tasks. The pile didn’t seem to be getting smaller. My hand was cramped and my head throbbed. I felt like I was hacking away at thick underbrush with a plastic spoon, growing more disoriented the harder I tried.
It was in the midst of this that my young daughters found my hiding spot and started whining at my leg. I realized that I might explode if I tried to ignore them, so I stopped working and suggested that we read a book. Anything, I thought, would be better than this.
And it was.
The story happened to be A Birthday for Frances, about the lovable young badger who has difficulty giving her sister a birthday gift, but it didn’t really matter what book it was. For twenty minutes nothing else mattered except the story. My daughters listened intently, one at my side and the other fiddling with something on the floor. As I read to them, I felt lighter. I was no longer burdened by my own decisions, whether they concerned the grade I was going to give the essay before me, or the repair our car would soon need. The story liberated me from these kinds of choices by submitting me, for a short time, to the world of a precocious badger.
When we read a story, or watch a play or movie, we have no choice in the movement of the plot, the decisions the characters make, or the unwritten rules that govern the world the author has created. We don’t have the job of making meaning, at least not in the same way that an author does. Our task is to inhabit the story, not to choose what will happen in it. In other words, narrative releases us from the burden of being the architects of our own significance.
On one level stories offer us entertaining respites from the daily grind, but something more profound is at work. In forcing us to leave behind a world that depends on assertions of our wills, narrative draws us closer to a reality that Christians believe is more true. For the versions of ourselves created by our choices are never as real, or as fulfilling, as those which emerge when we submit to a Will beyond our own. The 20th-century philosopher and mystic Simone Weil understood this, arguing that we cannot create love ourselves but “can only consent to give up our feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love.” The radical nature of Christian love, rooted in submission, demands that we accept God’s will and deny our own.
Accepting God’s will depends on our ability to listen for it and recognize it, a process that must begin with removing ourselves from the center of our own universes, with unburdening ourselves of the obligation of forging meaning through our own desires. It starts, in other words, by habituating ourselves to the workings of narrative.
Each wave of students that I teach seems less and less familiar with how stories work. In part because of the data-driven streamlining of education (i.e., the Common Core), students of all ages are spending more time reading and analyzing non-fiction (speeches, historical documents, informational texts, etc.) rather than appreciating literature. Stories, once the foundation of English and language arts classes, are quickly becoming something like an accessory to a K-12 education in America. And with the many distractions that pass for entertainment now, you’re as likely to find young people reading stories in their free time as you are likely to find them darning socks. Perhaps I’m being apocalyptic, but with the humanities in decline in colleges everywhere, I’m not so sure. Stories are losing their hold on us.
It’s important that we keep them close. Narrative readies us for inner transformation by demanding that we submit, if only for a time, to being carried along in a larger design. In doing so, it reveals itself to be something like the fabric of the spiritual life. To surrender to Christ is to inhabit his narrative—the most meaningful one, we believe. It’s essential, then, to encounter stories, for how else will we learn to recognize the only one that really matters?
Mike St. Thomasteaches English at a Catholic high school in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife and daughters. He writes about literature and Catholic education at thecatholiclitclassroom.blogspot.com.