One of the great benefits of reading fiction is the experience we often have of deep empathy for a character. Like a charm, we don’t even realize we have become immersed in someone else’s perspective, loving what they love, hating what they hate, riding shotgun in their hearts. This is dangerous, of course, because we lay our hearts open to things in stories we never would if we were acting with our mind in charge. But it is also a wonder. It’s fantastic to experience someone else, to love and be united to some one so closely in spirit. Perhaps more wonderful is the miracle, if only for a moment, of not being consumed with ourselves. “Sir, you forget yourself.” Thank God. Keep it coming.
Maybe it’s not a big deal that the people in stories are often not people in the sense that you and I are. I would argue that they are real. As Chesterton said, “Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.” It must be admitted they are not real in the primary creation the way we are, but still, we forget ourselves and see through new eyes. Perhaps a million eyes.
It’s easy when we’re kids. The ecstatic transport of being another someone in imaginative play is as easy as one-two-three–easier even (math is hard). I have been many other someones, mostly to my advantage. I take on their courage, their generosity, their gentleness, and heroic mercy. When we are children, we can imagine ourselves as pure characters and not betray our hearts. But “we have sinned and grown old,” as Chesterton (once again) said. We are grown, and long for the magic of childhood. We long for an old self that was more of a self, because it was perhaps less self-centered. We long, as Rich Mullins sang, to “grow young.”
In great stories we may be children again. We are vulnerable, happy, selfless. One of the sadnesses of the teenage phenomenon is the tragic joy of self-awareness. It is as if, as we grow, we recapitulate the Fall. We realize what we are, and we set about sewing those fig leaves. I do not intend to advocate the Pelagian view that we are born sinless–it’s St. Augustine for me–only that, as we age, the sin at work in us seems to deepen, entrench, and in our minds there grows a terrible awareness of who we are and what we are becoming. Stories can be an escape from this. But they can do more than just remind us of who we were. Great stories whisper to us about who we truly, deeply are. Or may become.
It’s hard as adults to rediscover the joys of self-forgetting, and fiction is an avenue back.
“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” –C.S. Lewis
The irony is that our deepest, truest self will awaken when we have stopped being so obsessed with ourselves. To find your life, you must lose it. So we travel in tales, but in the best ones we arrive home.
There will be the inevitable charge of escapism. Tolkien had a characteristically insightful reaction to people who dismissed fairy stories, or “fantasy,” as escapism.
“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailors and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course the worst prison we are faced with is our terrible self-obsession, which is the idolatry at the heart of all idolatry.
So, stories give us a heart of empathy. Or, they can. They let us outside ourselves, if only for a little while, to see with new eyes. This cannot help but change us. And if they are the right sort of stories, we shall not be changed into dragons (as Eustace Scrubb was), but into–or along the way to–our very best selves.
Fiction does help us with this. We do develop deep empathy for the characters we read of and, for a while, whose hearts we inhabit. But I find it’s easy to love theoretical people. It’s the real people I have the hardest time with.
And so, though I love it and stand by its virtues, I am forced to admit literature is not the miracle we need. It is a beautiful, mystical wonder. But what I need to love my neighbor as myself is more than a literate empathy. I need the Holy Spirit of God giving me a new heart. I need to be fully awake to the Kingdom coming in terrible beauty and power. I need to become a Kingdom person, that herald of a new creation that I am myself an exemplar of. I want to honor and celebrate all human flourishing. But corpses cannot finally flourish. I need new life.
I find I cannot be like Jesus without saying Yes to Jesus. I can imitate on my own, but I cannot be recreated by my own hand. The new birth is, like creation, an act of God. Like all acts of God, insurance will not save us. And reading even the very best literature can be a little like lousy insurance. It’s great to have, but it will not save you from the tornado. It will not cause you to live again.
God is in the storm, breathing on the face of the new creation. His story is reanimating heaven and earth. We are invited to do more than read and learn, but to step inside the tale and become fully alive.