The stories that guide us

“…Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.”

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“I do not know what young Catholics today actually learn, but my brief experience with teenage preparation for Confirmation suggests that it is nothing much beyond vague sentimentalities about God’s love…. Hooper would be barely sensible to the shipwrecks of Paul, the exile of Athanasius, the trial of Formosus, the conversion of Augustine, and the death of Joan of Arc. Annoyance and sentimentality are the only passions left to the Hoopers of the world. Greatness is quite literally unimaginable to them, whether that greatness be heavenly or hellish; Paradise is bland and the Inferno desolate. Heroism and hedonism alike hold no appeal for Hooper.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

We humans are a talking breed. Language and story are inextricably mixed, and it seems clear that the stories we tell eachother around the campfire—the narratives of our lives and imagination—are what define us as moral and ethical beings.

Life provides us with various types of existing narratives. There are the stories of our childhood, the teachings of religion, the tales of heroes. We learn from these what it is to be good, true, courageous, loyal, stalwart, cunning, indomitable, kind. We hear how to rise from defeat, how to withstand trial, how to protect others, and how to sacrifice ourselves when all else fails.

And most of all, we learn how to judge behavior—our own and everyone else’s. We explore what it is to be a coward, to be the object of shame. We internalize these judgments, and that helps keep us from shaming ourselves and makes us reliable and trustworthy members of our communities. As the stories tell us, there are always people who fail to live up to these standards, as we do ourselves from time to time, but at least there is a general consensus about what we’re aiming at, or trying to.

But that was then.

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