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A Reminder About Story Middles: Heroes Don’t Give Up

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The universe has been trying to remind me of something lately, so it must be important.

I woke up from a remarkably peaceful dream and I wasn’t sure why. There was a malevolent ghost and a lot of running and hiding. But those things were part of a story, and somehow knowing that they were part of a story made them feel slightly removed and a little inevitable. Of course there were villains and danger and conflict in a story.

That’s how a story middle works. The happy ending was yet to come.

A night or two before, during our nightly read-aloud,* the protagonist said something like, “I knew I was about to die,” and my 5th grade smart-alec responded, “You’re not going to die, your name is in the title!”

“Well, that’s not always a guarantee in stories,” I said, “but he probably could gain some hope if he knew he was only on page 80-something, and there’s 400-some pages to go. Actually, that’s a good life lesson, too!”

“Seriously, Mom?” said the 7th grader.

I plowed on anyway. “You never know what page you’re on in your own story. Actually, that’s why I named you ‘Sam,’ Sam!” Yes, I’d completely gotten off the track of the story we were reading, but this was important!

“At one point in The Lord of the Rings,** the original Samwise makes a bit of a speech about how the heroes of a story don’t know they’re the heroes, and the only thing that makes them the heroes is that they don’t give up. As soon as I first read that I went, ‘That’s the best thing anyone has ever said. I need to name a kid Sam,’ all because of that passage. That’s how important a life lesson it is.”

I thought of it again a few days later when the non-fictional Sam fell victim to a failed saving throw versus poison. He was quite distraught. But it was D&D! There would be time for healing and even resurrecting before the end! We just had to finish up this battle first! This is why I named you ‘Sam’! To remind you that the adventure’s not over yet!

On my own time, I’d been reading Hope and Other Superpowers*** by John Pavlovitz—a premise very much me, how to be a better person in a depressing world using the metaphors of superheroes. Distilled to its bare minimum, his answer is the same as Samwise’s: The heroes are the ones who don’t give up. “Revolutions have always been initiated by regular folks who’ve simply shown up in the mundane space of their unspectacular days, done what they could, and hoped that it made a dent—and, friend, it always makes a dent.” (p42).

In these same few days one of my favorite TV shows, The Good Place, wrapped. There are several applicable tie-ins to the Universe’s message for me in that. The prevailing moral of the show is “You gotta try,” that striving to do better is the most important part of being a good person. “This is the whole story,” Michael explained earlier in the season while making a case for why even the worst humans deserve a chance. “No one is beyond rehabilitation…. what [the total good and bad points] number can’t tell you is who he could have become tomorrow.”

There’s also something in the way the show is structured: broken into chapters, with characters who grow and change, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sometime last year I decided I want the whole show in book form, to hold it as a complete whole, maybe just because it fits the format so well. It tells a complete story, and it’s a story that doesn’t stop until it finds the happiest ending possible—even if it takes thousands of years (or Jeremy Bearimies) to do so.

When I read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, an observation that stuck with me the most actually had nothing to do with the famous Hero’s Journey: he simply noted that Creation Myths could be divided into two types. Creation myths told from the point of view of the gods all describe beautiful cosmic dances. But even the same myths, from the same cultures, when told from the point of view of humanity, are about traumatic cataclysms.

Sometimes this big picture way of looking at things seems heartless.

Nobody wants to be told “everything happens for a reason” when they’re grieving or struggling. But maybe you just need a reason to keep going, and in that case, taking a step back and imagining you’re in the middle of a book might help. Maybe that’s what the universe wants me to know, and wants me to tell all of you. Whether it’s a game or a life at stake, whether it’s the life of one person or the life of an entire planet, it’s not over until it’s over.

Be the hero of the story. All you have to do is not turn back.

*Which was Rick Riordan Presents tale and recent Coretta Scott King Author Honor recipient Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, which is quite fun, thanks. We are now up to page 200-something because I wrote this slow.

**We still haven’t read this one as a family yet, but it’s on our list for later this year, don’t worry.

***Every time I see this title, it makes me think, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” so my brain goes either “Hope is the thing with Superpowers” or “Hope and Other Feathers.”

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