In an essay called “The Truth of Fiction” Chinua Achebe writes that everyone creates fictions for ourselves to make our worlds livable. By “fictions” he means the stories that make sense of things and connect the dots of life. Imagine the individual dots as isolated events, for example, a stray comment, some disappointment or heartbreak, an unexpected smile. The fictions are the stories we imagine that lie behind these events, the meanings we give them. Some of these fictions are beneficent (belief that a person did a hurtful thing not because of some character flaw, but a mood) and some are malignant (belief in superior and inferior races or sexes, belief that because a person is wearing an unusual kind of clothing they must have an unusual kind of soul).
I think Achebe is right, we are fiction builders. We do not just keep the fictions we create to ourselves, however, they are contagious. They spread from person to person like a virus (or a cure) and the stories we have made for ourselves to live in, others will try to live in too as that story spreads and they come to see the world, themselves, their loved ones, God in similar ways. That is why it is so important that we do not lie to ourselves, that we try not to let ourselves be deceived, that awake people remain awake.
Achebe is saying that whether these fictions are true or false, good or evil, they have power because they shape the way we see the world. The power to make a story that others will live in is a great power, which begs the question: How can people use this power well?
1. With Humility
2. With Love
Apply the idea that we are creators of fictions to the area of interpersonal relationships. Isn’t that all that is happening when you are getting to know someone, you are creating stories about one another in your minds. No friendship, marriage, or hatred can begin without these stories, and the stories are the very stuff of the relationship – what you dread, or miss, or fall in love with. But when these narratives are firmly in place there is always more to the person than can fit into them. People married for half a century still learn new things about one another. Enemies can come to edit the stories they have for one another and be reconciled. This gift of creating fictions requires humility.
There is more to the people around you than you know. The funny thing is somewhere along the line of getting to know a person we think that we know them, and then our opinion of them crystallizes to the point that we can only see them through that certain lens. Even if they are trying to show us there is more to their souls than we have pinned down we will not accept it if it does not fit with who we have decided that person is. We can put people in boxes and then keep putting them there and so we make our opinions of others into prisons for them.
In order to be cruel or callous to a person, you must first create for them a malignant fiction. Once this is created you are free to treat them however you want because “they are just that way and you know it even if nobody else can see it.” The fiction itself becomes enough justification for any kind of treatment. Trace every instance of cruelty or inhumanity back to its source and you will find someone deciding to paint another person in a certain dark light. If we are to truly love one another and act in loving ways it begins with going back and revising our stories of the people we find it difficult to love. There is a sense in which this is the very heart of compassion. Jesus did this constantly. He looked on people the world had cast aside and saw a different story for them than they had been taught to believe. In the gospel we see the very dregs of society flocking to Jesus because they find someone interacting with them in the light of a beneficent story. To love a person, at the end of the day, may simply mean to see them as God intends them to be, and the glory of this grace is that it leaves changed lives in its wake. It is as though in the process of imagining another story reality actually changes. Grace calls sinners saints and then makes them so. Grace is a very contagious fiction and as it spreads people may find it big enough to live in and big enough to be healed in.
I’ll end with this quote from the end of Achebe’s essay which i love:
“I have direct experience of how easy it is for us to short-circuit the power of our own imagination by our own act of will, for when a desperate man wishes to believe something however bizarre or stupid, nobody can stop him. He will discover in his imagination a willing and enthusiastic accomplice. Together they will weave the necessary fiction which will bind him securely to his cherished intention.”