My husband and I recently took Grace, who is seven, to see The Avengers. She had never seen a super hero movie before, and within two or three minutes, she was completely hooked. She reached her hands out to “touch” the shattered 3-D glass; she laughed at everything Iron Man said. And in the middle of one of the first battles, after sitting with her mouth hung open in amazement, she leaned over to me and patted me on the hand, and whispered as quietly as a seven year old can, “It’s OK, KK—the good guys always win in the end.”
I smiled to myself and thought for a minute that it must be nice to be so young—to be so convinced (or at least to be able to convince yourself) that good always conquers evil. We are the stories we tell ourselves, I thought. And I worried this movie was going to take that away from her.
Of course it didn’t. Super heroes do always win in the end. But it got me thinking: we’re always talking about what’s wrong with society today, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that society is sick because the stories we tell ourselves are sick. We have to heal what we tell ourselves—much in the same way that someone with a disordered body image can’t feed their body correctly, someone with a distorted view of humanity can’t feed their soul.
Earlier this year, a student told me that the only reason they were able to complete Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock was the hope that maybe Rose would make it out alive. I told her, probably a little too flip, that hope was the only thing that carried us through most stories. The more I thought about that, the more I began to believe it; but the problem is how many of the stories we tell that are hopeless. People with no hope, storylines with no chance of salvation. In a world where most of us are driven to survive solely because of hope of salvation, I have to question why we’re telling ourselves such bleak stories. Why aren’t there heroes on a small scale? Is that a reflection of society? Or is society showing that because that’s what we tell ourselves?
Grace is my stepdaughter. The term is full of the same lack of depth that ‘boyfriend’ seems to have once you’ve been seeing the same man for years. She lives with my husband and me most of the time. I changed my whole life—my job, my schedule, my priorities—so that I could stay home with her, pick her up from school, and have the summers off with her. And part of the immediate reward of that is that, often, I hear my words parroted back from a cute young mouth. “Be careful,” she’ll warn her toys. My neurosis. “That’s not very nice,” she’ll tell a person who rolls their eyes. My pet peeve.
As a parent in her life, it’s my responsibility to teach her the right words and the right stories to live a healthy life. I want her to be a happy person; to have boundaries; and yes, to be careful. But most importantly, I want to raise her to be a hopeful person. I want her to always know that things can get better.
Something about watching her absolute certainty that the good guys would be victorious bolstered my faith in the power of stories: she was comforted, but she was also made stronger by the realization that people could rise above to accomplish something. In my personal life, I don’t always feel that way; some days, I feel like even getting the laundry done is a minor miracle. But I try not to talk like that in front of her, for fear she’ll begin repeating that: “If I can just make it through this day…”
is finishing her MFA at Spalding University. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Evansville, and was the guest editor for a recent edition of the poetry journal Measure. She has been published in The Meadowland Review, Big Lucks, and The Evansville Review, among others, and founded the music blog Katie Darby Recommends (www.katiedarbyrecommends.com).