We like stories about falling in love, being heroic, overcoming danger or climbing to power and riches. It’s easy to see why. We want things like that to happen for us, and the stories let us share these experiences in our imagination.
But we also like sad stories. Many of our most famous stories are tragedies. They tell us of love and loss and madness, and have weepy endings. We don’t want things like that to happen to us or to anyone we love, but we still tell these stories. This may be because:
- we like a good cry;
- the way we tell these stories isn’t meant to be depressing. They are meant to be beautiful and poetic, even uplifting.
Real world tragedies generally aren’t beautiful and poetic. They are either random, like a plane falling out of the sky, or depressingly inevitable, like a child rejected by his parents who goes on to be a terrible and abusive human being. We know they happen. We know they could happen to us. Our imagination tells us so.
Imagination comes at a price. It is restless. You can’t say to it: ‘stop imagining things now, it’s not useful at the moment.’ It sees something curious, like a house with Christmas decorations in summer, and it wants to build a framework that will help it understand why. It sees that the world is a place where awful things happen, both the random and the inevitable. It knows we, and those we love, are going to die. It can’t leave that alone. It has to explore these experiences, just as it explores the happier and hopeful ones. Again, it’s about trying out what could happen in your mind before it happens for real.
That’s what stories let us do.
And when we tell tragic stories, we don’t make them random or pointlessly inevitable. We work them into story patterns that seem meaningful to us or even beautiful, and that allow us to think we understand why a tragedy happened. We make the raw and ugly experiences of the real world into beautiful jewels that aren’t happening to real people.
In this way we take some kind of control, in our minds, over the world of sadness. Then we can release our fear of it, and our pity for those others who are caught in it, in a damn good cry.
(Story patterns? Yes, but that’s about how we tell stories. Before we start on that, could you just check you’ve still got that organ donor card? If not, you’d better go back and get it.)