The Work of Fiction

We all know what “fiction” is. We love it. Eat it up. We love escaping to other lands, hearing strange stories with heroes and villains that we can read about on a page or watch on a screen, safe and secure in the knowledge that, this is not happening. This is not real. They can’t hurt me.

But we also know that fiction is more than that. The best, most beloved stories speak to something much deeper than pure escapism. The work of Joseph Campbell in the last century, building on Jung, teased out the patterns in stories all over the world, through thousands of years of humanity, to find the archetypes, the monomyth.

The repeating characters of the hero myth such as the young hero, the wise old man or woman, the shape-shifting woman or man, and the shadowy antagonist are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as revealed in dreams. That’s why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, strike us as psychologically true.
Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mined, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events.

This thread of meaning is woven through myth, through religion, through theater, through science fiction. We share these stories with each other because they tell us who we are and shore up the narratives we build internally about ourselves. Your friends may find this resonance in their church while you find it in fairy tales. Or Star Trek.

Or Star Wars. I am particularly drawn to science fiction and fantasy narratives. My parents raised me as a Unitarian. According to them, “it was the only church they could stand” and they intentionally started taking my sister and me to church when we were nearly 10, because they wanted us to have the experience of church, but were more nervous about actual faith. And as an adult now, I identify as an agnostic when I have to, but I’m much more interested in the way people consume and express their beliefs. How they internalize the lessons from these stories and teach them to their children and let them guide their choices.

And that is what I want to tackle today. Fiction matters because we use it to construct and deconstruct our ideas about morality. And I’m starting to suspect that it’s not working very well. We can tell important stories and teach them to our children. We identify and telegraph who is good and who is bad. And then, collectively, we still choose to act like the bad guy.

How is this possible? It’s not really new. One of the most fascinating aspects of our recent history for me, is the fact that there were both pro-slavery and abolitionist churches. The Bible, long held up as a beacon of morality and human compassion, was used to justify both slavery and fighting for equality. So perhaps we should start asking ourselves, why do we have such a hard time using our mythology to construct the kinds of societies we say we want? Why doesn’t fiction work? Is it something about the stories? Or is it something about us, and our inability to see in ourselves the kind of power we reserve for mythology?

This is an especially deep concern today, post election 2016.

As a parent myself, I have found myself mentally attacking the stories I share with my children. They are only 6 and 3. I want to raise them to be good people. People who will ask questions and have empathy and gratitude.

I want them to be better than me.