A great story is something special to me. I love all kinds of stories. But what's a T-rex got to do with a wormhole and my love of stories? More importantly, what do stories have to do with humanity's searching for meaning? I was a weird kid. At least, I think so. At a really young age, I recall wondering if other people possessed self-awareness or sentience. Okay, I didn't know those words when I was all of five or six, but I distinctly recall wondering if, in essence, other people were capable of thinking about what they were doing--to think about thinking--or if they were essentially robots going through life with no free will. I wondered if I was the only one with such awareness.
Thankfully, I figured out pretty quickly that every person has sentience and I was not alone or special in that way. But that got me starting thinking in rather philosophical terms. I was perplexed by the fact that I was stuck in here, inside my own head, and unable to experience the thoughts and feelings of other people. I didn't know it then, but I was running up against the metaphysical barrier that exists between every person. We're all individuals capable only of experiencing what someone else experiences if they communicate it to us somehow. But this is always an indirect experience. It's not at all like the movie Being John Malkovich.
As I experienced stories in my youth, I discovered a means by which I could get as close as possible to experiencing life as someone else. The profound empathy that stories inspired in me has shaped my life. I just can't get away from great stories.
I loved the adventures of those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Flight of the Navigator and Star Wars got me excited about traveling through space. Never Cry Wolf made me wonder about solitude. My parents read to me The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. These stories shaped me in deep ways. I couldn't help looking at life as if it were some kind of adventure I was destined to navigate.
As I grew up, I was drawn to the cinema because here was as immersive of an experience as one can have in terms of really stepping into someone else's mind and feeling what they feel. Roger Ebert was right, movies are an empathy machine of sorts. Movies like E.T. and Jaws both fascinated and terrified me. Goonies, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future thrilled me. Blade Runner made me wonder about the future and if we could create sentient robots. Die Hard was ... well, let's be honest, just a hell of a lot of fun.
And then Jurassic Park came along. The wonder at seeing dinosaurs alive on that theater screen set my twelve-year-old mind on fire. If stories can bring about a whole different reality then I want in, I thought. This is what I want to do. I snagged a copy of Michael Crichton's novel and found in it a similarly visceral and enthralling experience. It was at this point that I truly fell in love with science fiction. It wasn't just that the dinosaurs were cool. Sure, they were. No denying that. Hell, they're still cool. Beyond this, however, something was happening on the pages of that novel, a wrestling with ideas and questions about the role and responsibility of science and human progress. Crichton was asking "what if" and "should we?"
The following year, even as a thirteen-year-old, I got to see The Shawshank Redemption in theaters. It remains a favorite film of mine I regularly have to revisit. Even then I could tell that expressed within the narrative of Shawshank was an exploration of the very nature of friendship and love between human beings trapped on planet Earth--our own more expansive Shawshank, as it were. We don't chose to be here, we just end up here. It's not always easy existing here, but we are free to isolate or connect. For some of us, it's too much, and like Brooks we make our own exit. But even if we do, we long for someone to notice that we were once here, once part of this world.
Just a few years later I saw another film that shook me to the core. Contact offered up a meditation on our incredible minuteness and insignificance in the scale of a grand universe that will forever remain almost entirely a mystery to us. As a teenager growing up in a Christian home, I was deeply invested in my spiritual journey of discovering a God that is both grand and relational. But it was Contact that gave me context. I remember finishing the movie and walking down to my basement bedroom to be alone for a while. I had a lot I needed to process. The film had so eloquently captured a glimpse of how vast the universe is and how deep our longing to connect with something other than ourselves--to discover that in fact, "we are not, none of us, are alone," to quote the film. I lay face down on the floor, and for what felt like at least a good half hour, I wept uncontrollably. In all of the vastness of this ancient universe, who are we, I wondered.
It wasn't until I got to college that I encountered philosophy as an academic discipline thanks to Dr. Chad Meister. I realized only then that the questions posed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle long ago were ones I'd been asking all my life. Who are we? What does it mean to exist, to be a human being? Why are we here? Do we have free will? What lies beyond this reality? How do we know the truth? Is there truth?
Ever since then, I've realized that stories are this amazing meeting place between the philosophical and the experiential. Stories are where we work out so much of what we think about our reality and ourselves. Listening to stories is also how our brains try to learn survival techniques as we navigate this complicated world (see Lisa Cron's book, Wired for Story).
This is why I love stories. This is why I tell stories. I'm just trying to make sense of life. And let's be honest, there's a lot to make sense of in this life. With the influence that Jurassic Park and Contact had on me, is it any wonder that I became a science fiction writer? I love not only telling stories, but experiencing and discussing them. That's what I'll be doing on this blog, going forward. If you'd like to keep up with my latest posts as I dive into meaning of life questions explored through stories, sign up for my mailing list. In the meantime, what stories have shaped you and why? Comment below. I'm always happy to chat.