Be of Good Courage

Washington SeashoreWhat’s the use of stories?

One friend, a writer, argues that entertainment itself has value—to provide escape from our difficult lives and give us pleasure for a few hours.

In a recent TED talk, novelist Elif Shafak encourages us to see stories as a way out of insular identities. Stories, she says, can “poke holes” in our walls, allowing us to meet and understand those radically different from ourselves.

And Alain de Botton, in his volume Religion for Atheists, claims that literature can deliver the same moral fiber for atheists as the Bible does for the devout.

But for me, the most important lesson I absorbed from stories was the lesson of courage.

Being a child is frightening, no matter how loving your family and teachers are. You live in a land of giants, a world you do not fully understand and have no control over. Bruno Bettelheim was perhaps one of the first great Western thinkers to address the inherent terrors of childhood—and the ways that folktales speak to these.

I loved the daring of Peter Pan, the trickster wit of the third Little Pig who outsmarted the Big Bad Wolf, Rapunzel’s resourcefulness with her own body, and the good sense of Sleeping Beauty who simply slept through all the trouble and woke up after the evil witch had been done away with.

As a writer, I know that stories are always about trouble. You have to paint your characters into a corner first. Give them a problem. Better yet, give them multiple problems. Lots of problems. So many that they have to take action.

And so, by virtue of the form, all protagonists are problem-solvers.

From Oliver Twist to Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre to Anne of Green Gables, fictional protagonists showed me ways to face and resolve problems. I learned from literature that there are as many ways to solve a problem as there are people in the world—and that the solutions depend more on character than on straightforward logic.

Jane Eyre could have just told Rochester to take a hike unless he divorced his wife. Huckleberry could have just steered clear of trouble—rather than sticking around to outsmart it.

But then Bronte and Twain wouldn’t have had their stories. And I wouldn’t have learned, as a child, what it was to be brave. Which is just another word for being true to yourself. Indeed, the English word “courage” shares the same ancient root as the French “coeur”—the word for heart.

To have courage, as a library co-worker was telling me today, is all about knowing yourself. Knowing your own heart.

And that’s always what happens in my favorite stories.

The heroine only finds courage after she finds her true self.

From my favorite fairytales and books and movies, I learned that problems come to everyone. But the best way to tackle them is almost always head-on. Honestly and with integrity. And a pocketful of humor and compassion can be just as good as any pinch of fairy dust.

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