Are you satisfied?
What a question. Given our situation, is there any answer but “no”? Who can be satisfied when a world pandemic has us quarantined? And at the same time intolerable injustice has us on the streets? When economic collapse has us waiting in mile-long lines at food banks? When our vote may not be counted?
Is there any other answer when we have never had more voice and never had less influence? When Hate Militia are on the march and the Thought Police are abroad, meting out punishment and shame? When the Troll in Chief spews lies amplified as truth? When our stories are published into a void? When our very language has been twisted into Newspeak?
When there is so much wrong in the world, can writing be right? Are we helping others by staying at home? Are we truly changing anything when we choose a concrete noun or an active verb? Is being passive an act, when acting is futile? Do our stories truly matter when we do not?
What is The Quest?
Every story portrays conflict. Every protagonist has a problem. In a story, things happen. Things are done. A struggle grows harder. A crisis arrives. Choices are made. Success is achieved. At the same time, an inner journey is underway. Change is brewing: change inside. When all of that melds, comes to a head, and results in a resolution, we arrive at a happy ending.
But are we satisfied?
Stories have a moral basis, and when a principle is affirmed or a belief is challenged—that is, when a story fulfills its purpose—we ought to be content, settled, secure, empowered, uplifted, inspired.
When justice is done, we ought to be relieved. When a monster is slain, we ought to feel safe. When the world is saved, we ought to feel mighty. When love conquers all, we ought to be happy. When a wound is healed, a burden is lifted, a destination is reached, or wholeness is achieved, or peace is found, then we ought to feel finished.
But we are not. We still are not satisfied.
Why not? It is because the mechanics of plot are insufficient. It is because the inner journey is not the final destination. It is because the fulfillment of the story’s purpose is good but once again says that the cause of all that ails us is other people. It is because the cure for our malady is up to us. It is because we are desperate for a cure in the first place.
The reason that many stories do not fully and finally satisfy is that we have misapprehended the human quest. We imagine that it is to solve problems. We believe that it is to fix what is broken inside. We trust that as storytellers we are supposed to affirm principles, or test beliefs, or speak truth to power, to portray what is righteous, to forgive what is fallible, or to reflect what is human. All of that is good, yes, but none of that is enough.
We are still not satisfied.
The truest quest is not to fix anything. It is not to journey, to solve a puzzle, to win a battle, to obtain a prize, or to return in glory. It is not to slay a monster or save others. It is not to vanquish inner demons, or to find peace. Our journey never ends. There are puzzles with no solution. There is always another war. A prize is just a trophy. Glory never lasts. Monsters ever rise. There are always more who need rescue.
Inner demons may go away and we may feel at peace, but that is only for a time. If we believe there is an ending, then we will never reach it. The true quest is not material. It is not psychological. It does not result in rest.
The truest human quest is for ourselves. Not just self-awareness—immersive POV writing is a feast of that—and not just self-understanding either. Knowing what makes us tick does not by itself buy us any grace. The truest quest is to know ourselves so profoundly that we make our choices in full awareness of who we are, how we got that way, and where we can go.
Our truest quest is for freedom: from fear, from the past, from the judgement of others, from the tyranny of beliefs, from the need for armor, from the desire to be invincible, from the illusion of a perfect world. The world is not perfect. It never will be. Neither will we.
What we can be is ourselves: fully knowing, fully capable, fully reconciled, fully free to act, fully able to choose what to do based not on what is valorous, or righteous, but on who we are. When trouble is no longer troublesome, and blame no longer lies with others, then we become strong, wise, caring, able and willing.
When we are mature, we solve problems, yes, but we ourselves are no longer problematic. We love not answers, but questions. We slay monsters but we also make friends. We do justice, aware that it is flawed. We are healed because we did not need medicine. We stop blaming others. We protest but we do not hate. We give to others because in our poverty is abundance. We create because we can. We journey to new worlds because we have already reached our destination. We love others because we first love ourselves.
Quests make good stories. Inner quests are their hearts. The truest quest, though, is not to go somewhere else or to win a treasure inside. The truest quest is not journey at all, nor is it a treasure to be found. The truest quest satisfies not because it ends, but because it is a beginning. The end of such a quest is right where it started: with oneself. [Read more…]