What does it all mean?
There is nothing like a time of crisis to provoke us to ask that most profound of questions, isn’t there? Oh, wait…we’re in such a time right now. Lucky us. So, let’s take a day off from baking gingerbread loaves, helping the kids with online learning, second draft revisions, and searching for toilet paper. Let’s look at the very idea of meaning and how it arises in stories.
Do stories have to mean anything? Isn’t the point to simply capture the human condition, or entertain? Stories can, of course, do only that but when that’s so their impact is lower. They are easier to dismiss. Think back to prior seasons of generic TV crime dramas. Pick one. Remember Season 3, Episode 7? Wait, you don’t? It kept you watching for forty-four minutes back then, but now it’s forgotten. Why? There wasn’t much meaning in it.
Now, by contrast, what is your favorite scene in To Kill a Mockingbird? Miss Maudie’s house burning down? Visiting Calpurnia’s church? Atticus shooting the rabid dog? Mrs. Dubose’s gift of camellias? The lynch mob shamed by Scout? Atticus’s summation at the trial of Tom Robinson? The Negroes in the courtroom balcony standing in respect? Boo Radley behind the door? It can be hard to pick. So many moments in that novel stay in mind. Why? Because each one means something.
Breaking Down Meaning
In Man’s Search for Himself (1953), Rollo May wrote, “the chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness.” People not only don’t know what they want, they don’t know what they feel, except powerless. That’s as good a place for us to start as any. Emptiness is good because it is a vacuum to be filled and you have plenty of things to fill it with. You are a storyteller.
What is the purpose of a story? What vacuum does it fill? I believe we spend time consuming stories because they address what we most profoundly need to deal with. Conflict and problems. Facing our fears. Elevating our spirits. Delighting in our folly. Affirming our faiths. Validating our values. Challenging our misconceptions. Forgiving our failures. Finding hope. Overcoming our aloneness. Reconciling to death.
We want to understand. We need to order the chaos. We seek to explain the inexplicable, most especially our suffering. The psychological roots of our despair are many: the trauma of birth, separation from parents, conflicts inherent in sexual desire, social isolation, political oppression, alienation, loss of faith. Stories give us a way to understand, order and explain. When we’re lost, they can tell us what to do.
In our era, we are suspicious of moral purpose. We’ve been sold it too many times. We’ve signed on to too many schemes, believed too many lies, and have found that the platitudes on motivational posters do not actually change us. We’ve learned that our destinies are an illusion. Our decisions are made before we think and our opinions are baked into our genetics. We are less self-determined than we think and more subject to manipulation than we would like. We are helpless in the face of terrorist bombs and microscopic viruses alike.
Given all that, why should we trust stories to tell us anything of value? The fact is, though, that we do turn to them. Stories are our lifelines, medicine, scripture, hope. If they didn’t give us something essential to our living, we wouldn’t bother with them. In a world we mistrust, we can trust stories. They take us somewhere. They tell us the truth. They don’t feed us our thoughts; they force us to think. They show us a way to overcome what worries us. They assure us that we can prevail. They show us a way to live well.
Great stories don’t preach, but they do have a moral purpose. They don’t divide us, but connect us. They don’t instruct; they illuminate our behavior. They don’t promise us anything except the possibility of achieving wholeness, healing, courage, compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and selfless love. They fill the vacuum with what we need more than anything: meaning.
Three Components of Meaning in Fiction [Read more…]