In my adult life I’ve strongly developed a reverence for the power that stories hold over us. They act as points of reference for us on morals and how to interact. They frighten us, give us hope, influence us to love, hate, laugh, and cry. While fiction in all its forms is the source of much of this, the idea of story here branches to experiences and ideas we share with one another, absorbed as we grow and mature. While there are many big stories that require a lot of thought and experience with, there are little stories too, which can be trickier. Maybe only a statement or idea expressed in a few words, little stories can expand in our minds. I’ve found that I fill in the gaps with all other narrative tropes I’m aware of that fit.
The best little story I was ever told came from my Grade 12 English teacher. I don’t remember the exact context for the lecture, I just have a vivid memory of sitting in class listening to him tell it to myself and my peers: You will suffer. He went on to mention how many of us may be happy and fine right now, or even dealing with it already. It may be something small, it may be something huge, or anywhere in between, but the fact remains constant. Something will make you suffer, so don’t be surprised when it happens.
Now, this may sound a little blunt, or even harsh, to be telling a Grade 12 class that will soon be embarking on adulthood and possibly post-secondary education, but I did not take it that way and it is by far the most impactful advice I have ever received. Simple and to the point, it allowed for innumerable situations and scenarios to wash over me about the dim and uncertain future. This advice brought a real truth to the forefront of my naïve, young adult brain. In the same way many young people feel “immortal,” as I’ve heard said, suffering wasn’t really something I thought about in my future.
It was shortly after I heard this that my grandfather had passed away. He was the first close family member of mine to pass, so that kind of grief was something new to my 17-year-old self. These words echoed through my mind during this time, and came as a great comfort. I was saddened with my grandfather’s passing, but it didn’t devastate me. The words just kept reminding me of how natural events like these are, even if they’re jarring.
Being told, soberly and logically by someone I respect, that suffering was a part of life really helped to shape how I live even today. As someone who suffers from depressive episodes on a semi-regular basis this thought still comforts me. It drives me to do something constructive like exercise, spend time with friends, or even just read, watch, or play something. Suffering is natural, is going to happen, which means it also isn’t going to stop me.
Part of what has inspired me to share this is the increasing amount of articles I’ve read discussing young people — in situations where I was only a few years ago — appearing to be too sensitive when faced with challenging ideas. Most particularly, I read an article (here) that mentioned students complaining about novels in literature classes they were reading because they contained “offensive” content. This content, from what I understand, fit the context of the stories they were made to read. Context is king.
Stories do not have to be a safe place. They are going to contain upsetting or even disturbing content sometimes. So long as this content is not explicitly encouraging hate or violence from the reader there is nothing wrong with this, and the idea that some people think so is more unsettling. Life will not always be comfortable. You will suffer sometimes, and stories are a great way to experience and learn from such things in an imagined setting.