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QUINTESSENCE

Story Work

We read stories to get experiences we've never known firsthand, or, to gain a clearer understanding of experiences we have had. In the process, we follow one or more characters the way we follow our 'self' in our dreams; we assimilate the story as if what happened to the main characters had happened to us. We identify with heroes. As they move through the story, what happens to them, happens to us. In comedy, heroes go through all the terrible things that we fear or face in our own lives - but they teach us to look at disaster with enough distance that we can laugh at it. In non-comic fiction, the hero shows us what matters, what has value, what has meaning among the random and meaningless events of life. In all stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and if we are to be that hero's disciple for the duration of the tale, we must have awe: We must understand that the hero has some insight, some knowledge that we ourselves do not understand, some value or power that we do not have.
- from "Characters & Viewpoint," Orson Scott Card

I was putting together some notes for a workshop and paused to reread this paragraph by the science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card from a chapter of his popular writing guide, "The Hero and the Common Man." The title reflects our innate inner duality. Our awareness of tandem weakness and potential greatness. Joseph Campbell explored the pull of the heroic ideal in his groundbreaking work on the psychology of the mythic hero. We are all both the ordinary and the extraordinary in any given moment. Yet in our reading we seek characters who inspire us through their predicaments and a surprising ability to rise to the occasion. To be brave, compassionate, courageous, inventive, adventurous, just, even powerfully cruel.

I have been thinking all morning about the heroic and the personal cost of heroism. How those situations which may bring out the best in us are often the most difficult to endure. That those events to which we respond most bravely are too often the ones that cost us the very most. If the gift of triumph over loss is a sense of ourselves as capable, will fewer future challenges feel overwhelming as our courage muscles flex, or will we find our enthusiasm for life dulled by an awareness of experience as a two-edged sword?

I confess I do not know the answer to this question - whether challenge strengthens our vitality for life or toughens us with scars - but I might hypothesize we exist on a pendulum of sorts between the two responses, boldness and aversion. I believe stories work our predicaments: that we challenge ourselves to play-act beside the hero, exploring our own paper courage. And in shadow-boxing, realize a true, real-world strength. We use story, our own or those of others, as allegory and call to action, fable and history. So do the story work. Take a step back to laugh and a thoughtful moment in contemplation of the day and its challenges. Be in awe. You are the hero of your own story.
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