I love reading and listening to stories. When the stories feel real and true, I love them even more because they make me feel that the longings and dreams I have are not thwarted but possible. They resonate with my heart and propel me to noble behaviors. When I consider David and his sins yet hear God proclaim him as a man after his own heart (because of his willingness to repent), I feel encouraged that I too can pursue the heart of God. When I hear that Sarah received a prophetic promise and laughed yet still received her miracle baby and was listed in the faith annals of Hebrews 11, I feel deep hope that I too will become a woman of faith despite my times of doubt. These stories feel real and true and they resonate with me and spur me on like a great cheering crowd of witnesses.
But sometimes I hear a story that is false. Like when Satan tells Eve to eat the fruit and she will “be like God.” I recognize the lie and find myself screaming “No—don’t do it, Eve!” I feel the same way every time I read Gone With the Wind. My heart cries, “Don’t do it, Scarlett! Don’t keep pining after Ashley. Don’t build the biggest house in town and rub everyone’s nose in it. Heartache awaits!!!” It’s as obvious to us as it is that the sirens luring Odysseus are going to delay his reunion with Penelope, but still he stops and yields, not heeding our readerly warnings.
Yet the false stories and lies that come into our own thoughts and imaginations are often not so easily detected as those we see within epics and novels or even the lives of others. Sometimes the storyline of life we believe is deceiving us and affecting our actions in very subtle ways.
Usually when we believe a false storyline, fear is playing the part of unreliable narrator. I believe this is exactly what happened to those involved in the recent college admissions scandal that has captured the nation’s imagination. The parents involved must have been hearing and believing the story that reads: “It’s easier to buy a reputation for your child rather than labor in discipleship to shape it and mold it. The right college alone will produce the right mate, the right job and the right social circles.” They must have believed that in order for their children to become people of significance, they must grab at forbidden fruit for themselves so they could rise above the rest of the plebic population and “be like gods.” Not only have they yielded to sirenic lies, but they have taken up the pen and tried to change the storyline altogether, writing themselves as a false hero who has not been tested, tried, nor triumphant. They are like Grendle coming to devour what is not his. They are like the enemies of Israel, plundering the temple in order to steal what is sacred and attempt to sanctify themselves. And when Grendle can’t get what he wants, his momma comes to take it for him and do some devouring of her own.
Yet I cannot judge. For I, too, have faced the thoughts of college for my eldest son within the next year and the temptation to fear is very real. Stress tries to creep in and we begin to feel the weight and significance of what the decision we make about college will say about our child . . . and ourselves. What scenes and stories has society fed us for so long that we place such importance on the choice of where our kids go to college? Though I know differently in my heart, I, too, wrestle with the lure of prestigious universities, of names and traditions, of degrees and titles and must stuff my ears with spiritual cotton lest I heed what they say. It is almost as if our children on the cusp of high school graduation suddenly become our personal messiahs, the ones we have awaited to grow up, graduate and give us identity, power, and prestige. In this untruthful tale, our children’s educational successes somehow become vicarious portraits of our own meaning and significance. Their admission to the right school becomes a coveted holy of holies which we falsely believe will grant them access into a higher and more honorable life. The right SAT scores and GPA become the sacred incense needed to rend open the sacred admission halls and grant us access to the academic promised land. Or so the unreliable narrator leads me to believe.
So I must constantly harken to the true stories and the continued pursuit of self-denial and virtue and the example of true heroes. The messages we convey both at home and within our schools have the potential to teach what is beautiful and true or foster the lie. The very opposite of “image management” that the world touts daily, the pursuit of virtue teaches the student that they are made in the image of God and sets before us the Ideal type found in those who do sacrificial deeds—starting with Christ Himself, yet finding flesh in the men and women of both myth and martyrdom. Truly, deeply, I want my own son to know the hard work of studying late at night and reading difficult books. I want him to be Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” and, as Kipling would have it, “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” To forego Fortnite in favor of Milton and wrestle with math problems that threaten to overwhelm. For, truth be told, the overcoming itself is the great reward no matter which college one attends or what scholarships are offered.
We must remember this when final grades are tallied, SATs are scored, and applications are complete. We must tell our children and students the stories that place emphasis on virtue and character formation rather than college admissions success. We must believe together, as parents, that pursuing the Ideal image will set our children in the ideal place at the ideal time. For the truest stories always tell of sacrifice and struggle, and there will be giants along the way. Yet within our classical communities we can encourage one another to keep reading well, living well, and living stories that ring true.