Unbiased facts seem to be going the way of the northern white rhinoceros. Distinguishing truth from half-truths and falsehoods is perhaps the greatest burden on the modern consumer of news. And the more information we find to be less than completely accurate, the more frustrated and disengaged from the world we may become. But fear not. There may be a type of solution to this problem hiding under your own roof. It may be tucked away in a cardboard box collecting dust, but it is almost a certainty that you have at least some of it. You may not have touched it in quite some time, but this elixir is sure to ease your pain. “And what exactly is this magic antidote?” you may ask. To which I would respond with a simple answer: Fiction.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Nate, are you really going to try to convince me that in response to the dishonesty and false information in the world I should read a genre of literature that is distinguished from all other genres on the basis that it is not true?” That is an excellent question. I am glad you asked. Yes, that is exactly what I am trying to do. While it is true that fiction is fiction because the stories it tells did not actually happen and are in that way untrue, the stories live on for generations for a reason. And it is not because humanity has some pressing need to escape reality and find some alternate narrative to lose itself in, at least that’s not entirely why.
Why does Homer’s “Iliad” have such a hold on modern culture that movies starring Hollywood A-listers are based on it and even Netflix is retelling the tale? Why does King Arthur refuse to go away? And what is this ubiquitous obsession with William Shakespeare? If what you’re watching isn’t something he wrote, there’s a good chance it is based on, or at least references, something he wrote. All these questions have the same answer: The stories express truth.
As soon as our children are old enough, we start telling them stories. Oftentimes, we pick our personal favorites. The stories speak of good and evil, bravery, vengeance, greed, love, jealousy, and death. The stories entertain the kids and keep them quiet, and we hold vague hopes that something important might sink into their developing gray mass. But then they get too old for all that, and we shift to cold, hard facts. Santa does not actually come down the chimney because he doesn’t really exist. You will never meet a talking animal. Wings will not sprout out of your back allowing you to fly, and if they somehow did, we would immediately take you to a surgeon to have them removed. And the most soul-crushing of all: “No, Nate, you cannot teach the fox we trapped in the chicken coop to play basketball. They, uh, released him into the woods.” (I found out about 15 years later that “released in the woods” really meant “shot him in the yard.” Like I said, soul-crushing.) And then we quit talking about the stories as if they never existed.
Is this not a crime? Should we not be reprimanded for committing these atrocities? Where is the public outcry? We have taken the most fundamental truths of the human experience and thrown them to the wayside for simple convenience. We didn’t want to maintain the illusion of the fantasies, so we flushed the baby away with the rest of that bathwater nonsense. And I will admit that no, there is not really a depressed donkey living in the woods with a bear, a mini pig, kangaroos, and a tiger that bounces on his tail. However, having friends in my life that pick me up on a bad day and remind me that the sun is shining brightly somewhere and then doing the same for them when I can, that is part of my reality. And no, Macbeth did not really bump into a bunch of witches and allow his manipulative wife to convince him to murder his closest friends to become king. But if your plan to get what you want in life is going to cause great pain to those around, you probably need a better plan. And of course the Count of Monte Cristo did not actually plot and execute an elaborate revenge plan spanning 40 years and multiple countries, but deciding to forgive someone who masterminded your misery and choosing to move on with your life is one of the realest things I’ve ever heard.
So dust off the old books, or head on down to the library and pick up that one you always wanted to try but didn’t tell anyone for fear of embarrassment. Because one truth I know is that regardless of whether that wall ever goes up, or if my tax money is actually getting sent to China, or if that celebrity I used to like really did that shady thing, this week will bring opportunities to encourage or avoid tragedy or forgive, and I need to remember what those look like.