Why do we read sad stories, especially to children? James Witmer is a good dad with a good answer. –S.D. “Sam” Smith, Story Warren
Babe is a children’s novel about a pig who becomes a sheep dog. Pig. Sheep-pig! Despite this deeply philosophical foundation, it’s a funny, enjoyable tale.
In the last third of the book, there is a scene where wild dogs break in and worry the flock of sheep, killing an old ewe who was one of Babe’s dearest friends.
When we finished this sad chapter, I put the book down and looked at my five year old, who seemed to be choking back tears. “Are you sad?” I asked.
In a blink she had climbed onto my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck, and was sobbing so hard her little body shook.
It was a good moment to ask why we do this. Why do we read stories? Why do we read sad stories? Why do we do this to ourselves when there is already too much sadness in our lives?
This time I found the answer close by.
“Maa’s story is over,” I told her. “It’s always sad when a story ends. But Babe’s story isn’t over. He keeps living, and more things happen, and some of them are very good things.”
We kept reading. We used our imaginations to experience a truth about the world: Stories end, but The Story continues.
That’s something she will need to know when the stakes are higher. When she feels alone and adrift in the backwash of loss, she’ll need to believe that life goes on. Not just existence, but life. The story.
And in some way, when we near the end of our own stories, we all want The Story to go on without us. There must continue to be laughter, and hard work, and lovers uselessly mired in each others’ eyes, or why have we lived? It is the Great Story that gives ours meaning.
For a few moments on a Saturday afternoon, an old sheep and a silly pig, both imaginary, led my daughter and I snuffling into this dark truth, and back out into the sunlight.
She was belly-laughing not ten minutes later.
SO glad to see this reposted here. A great piece from Story Warren.
I was struck, when I read it over there, how much it reminded me of Andy Gullahorn’s song “Grand Canyon” and his repeating refrain, “The story isn’t over yet.”
Thanks for this piece, James. And now I have a new read-aloud for my own five-year old and I to enjoy together. One of the many, many reasons I love sharing stories with my own is because of the opportunity it affords us to have these kinds of conversations. The room is quiet, we’re both thoughtful, and we are sensitive and ready for considering the true, meaningful things. Bravo, story!
Thanks for posting this. So often we want to give our children only happy endings and protect them from sad or difficult experiences. We give them a distorted view of life that escorts them into adulthood without an ability to cope with challenges they face. Being able to take our point of view from The Great Story also helps us realize that we aren’t the center of everything and this is a life-skill the young need to learn as soon as possible. We have far too many adults who have not yet discovered this truth.
This is marvelous. Thank you for posting this. The Great Story is what propels me to write and is the truth I cling to when the darkness seems so deep.
Thanks, Carrie. That is funny – since I wrote this, I’ve been practically living on that album.
Glenn, yes! The quiet talks are almost as good as the stories. Almost. 😉
Kelly, right on. There is a wonderful freedom in being small, yet loved by Love.
Nicole, I find I often lose The Great Story in the bustle of my little one. And I lose hope along with it. One of the reasons I love this Rabbity Room place is the way it restores my perspective.
This is beautiful, James. Really beautiful. Spoke right to my heart. Thank you for writing it and sharing it. The Great Story gives ours meaning. Shockingly, joyfully true.
I have never read the book but seen the movie many times. Is the book better, do you think?
LauraP, thank you. I’m glad it encouraged you.
Sarah, it’s hard to compare books and movies, isn’t it? Because the medium is so different, the content also has to be different. But my feeling is that the movie, compared to other children’s movies, is pretty good – And that the book, as a book, is wonderful.
Thanks James. I know they try to weave in some spoken narration, but I definitely wanted more. It sounds beautifully written.
This is such a good point, James. I am thankful for good books that help my kids deal with real emotions so they can better handle reality when it happens.
I think I see now, too,why I don’t mind sad things as much when they happen in the midst of a story (as opposed to when that’s how the book ends). The fact that the story continues and ends on a more hopeful note is to me an assurance of Truth. Of course, if the ending is contrived or schmaltzy, it’s not good, but it may still be more reassuring!
Thanks for this, James … we came home from Hutchmoot a few weeks ago to find that our pastor is retiring at the end of this month, and that the little band of misfits we’ve journeyed with for fourteen years are scattering. This story is ending, but The Story is never over. It just goes “on and on and on … so don’t lose heart! Though your body’s wasting away … your soul is not, it’s being remade – day by day by day.”
Loren, I agree about the difference between sad endings and sad happenings along the way. And some of the best sad endings at least give us a hint at the continuing story (thinking of The Yearlinghere).
I was just thinking about this again, and how much better my girl’s experience was from my own first sad story. It was humbling to realize that the difference was I was alone when I read mine. But I got to be there when she read hers, to help her not miss the opportunity. I didn’t plan it. It was just a gift, to both of us.
Scott, I’m glad it encouraged you. It’s much harder to live through endings than to read about them. We are made for permanence, yet nothing we make endures, no matter how good. What a good song for seasons like this!
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