Too Fast to Appreciate
Writer David L. Robbins speaks to something he knows better than anything else in this world: the importance of telling a story.
Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that
I will go to …
– R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”
Life is big. Too big to comprehend all at once. It doesn’t come at us in bite-size bits but in swallowing floods, geysers of events, great gouts of life. Or it creeps up in tiny increments, atom-size dribs and drabs beneath our ken so that we fail to see and appreciate them, fail to make sums and sense of them. They add themselves up until, out of nowhere, the single drops become a storm and we’re back in the floodwaters, swamped and wondering how it all happened with such suddenness.
Life is too big, and too small. That’s why, to comprehend it, make it juuuust right, we tell stories.
STORIES SWEEP US AWAY
A well-told tale is a black hole for the heart and mind. Time and distance collapse in there, the great is made small, infinity made finite. A young wizard who battles evil for a dozen years can do it in about a week of steady reading. A sea captain can hunt a white whale, a young girl watch her father battle his own town and an ignorant era to defend an innocent man not of his color, a Messiah can arise in Nazareth and ascend from Jerusalem, incalculably more can happen with epic scope and tear-stained seconds on a page, a screen, a radio, beside a campfire, next to a bed, through the bars of a crib before the lamp goes out.
Stories sweep us away from ourselves, from our human and gravitational limits, take us to exotic times and locations. We gain powers and passions we will not have otherwise. We struggle more mightily than we ever could, and win! If the story is make-believe, we believe because to do less is to cheat ourselves. If the story is true, we marvel at the creatures we are, the adventures we share on a planet of wonders. If the tale is history, we look for clues to apply to our present. We search for morals and meaning, wisdom and joy, sadness and fear, all in stories.
Imagine a friend tells you, Goodness, you have to read this book, it’ll make you cry. Or you have to see this movie, it’ll scare the hell out of you. This one’s about a serial killer, this one a space monster, this one ghosts, this one zombies, this one madness, this one Wild Things, this one war; you’d hurry off to a cinema, Kindle, bookstore or television. But what if these were real events, what if your friend said Come on, let’s go fight a giant crocodile in the sewer, go to war against robots, find that twisted killer, let’s harpoon that damn whale! You should run, not walk, the opposite direction.
OUR LIVES’ MEANING, GONE BEFORE WE KNOW
Our own lives go too fast to really feel them.
Time whisks us away from ourselves like a man beside the highway, we’re there then we’re gone and we ask, What if I could have picked him up, gotten to know him? We can’t dig deep enough into a moment because it’s just a fleeting moment. We can’t truly fathom a year or a decade because it’s too big to measure. Lives and deaths enter and exit and we wish we could linger to better understand them. We stare to slow the moments down or close our eyes against them but little in life reveals itself at the right pace, in the proper dimensions, for us to digest. Meaning skips out the back way before we can make tea and sit with it a while.
But stories! When we read, watch and listen to stories, we can get right down to the nub of things. The lessons are often obvious and the risk is vicarious: That ain’t you with the wand, the harpoon, the broken heart. That wasn’t your 40 years in the desert.
In a story, the dream of love is yours for a while, like it is in real life. But it stays on the shelf and does not go away forever. In a story you find the needle in the haystack, the lost things return. You rest, and you gather. You are not alone.
No matter who you are, in a story you are not you.
It’s awful that we need this. But it’s fabulous, too, that we have this.
Oh, life is bigger, indeed. But not in a story. There, I am juuuust right.