Yesterday I was reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes while my son sat across the table munching away on a late breakfast. It’s a magnificent book that tracks the journey of an African girl who gets taken from her home, sold into slavery, and spends the bulk of her lifetime in conditions of appalling cruelty and inhumanity a world away from her home. It is a beautifully told tale of an incredibly strong, courageous, and good woman, but it is also a story of unspeakable suffering, depravity, and loss. It is a story that does not shrink from laying bare the evil of which human beings are capable.
“What’s that book about?” N. asked me, as he inspected his bowl of Cheerios. I told him that there was once a time when human beings of one colour treated human beings of another colour worse than animals, about how they bought and sold them like property, about how human beings find it easy to judge others based on external appearances, and about the great sadness and suffering this caused and causes for so many people. N. looked at me quizzically but didn’t say anything. “It’s pretty sad isn’t it?” I asked him, hoping to gain a bit of a window into how an eight year-old brain processes such things. He nodded and then had this question for me: “So why do you read about it?”
N.’s question caught me off guard and I’ve been thinking about it off and on for the last day or so. I thought about it last night as we watched Revolutionary Road—another sad story about the collapse of dreams and relationships, another story with no happy ending. I thought about it again this morning as I finished The Book of Negroes. Why do we read/watch sad stories? Why do I? In a world with more than enough tragedy, heartache, and pain why choose to listen to stories with no happy endings? Why not simply extract whatever pleasure, humour, and happiness we can from our stories as move through the ambiguous mixture of good and evil that colours our days?
Well there are obviously many good answers to my son’s question about why we listen to sad stories. We listen so we don’t forget those who have suffered; we listen because understanding evil—especially through the eyes and ears of those who experience it firsthand—is necessary in order to prevent it in the future; we listen because we want to understand and experience life honestly and realistically. These are just a few of the many reasons we would listen to sad stories that come to mind.
But that’s not the main reason I read sad stories. While I think all of the reasons above (and others, no doubt) are perfectly legitimate and admirable, the main reason I gravitate toward sad stories is because they serve as both a reminder and a promise. Sad stories remind me that despite the ease and comfort of my life thus far, this world is not a safe or comfortable place for so many of my brothers and sisters on this planet. Sad stories remind me that though I live in a privileged little corner of creation, there are many areas where evil and injustice run rampant and that the God I serve wants to see shalom in these places every bit as much as he does in Canada. Sad stories remind me of my calling as a follower of Jesus to be a part, however small, of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven and of how often I fail to do what I ought to do. Sad stories remind me that I not a detached observer of evil; they uncover the dark shadows within myself that I try to ignore; they reveal how the line between good and evil really does, as Solzhenitsyn famously said, run right down the middle of the human heart.
But sad stories speak of a promise as well—the promise that the Lord of Creation will not forever abandon us to our dark ways and that a bigger and better story is being written and that this story can and does break into our sad stories. Ultimately the promise is that all the sad stories we read and watch and hear and live through—all the grief and pain and tragedy we experience and contribute to—will one day be finally healed and find their place in the big story of redemption in which all of God’s children live and move and have their being.
The big story does have a happy ending, but like all the little stories that are a part of it, there is sadness and pain as well. The Storyteller himself has suffered. The happy ending does not come without a cost either for us or for the Storyteller. Sad stories, it seems, are a non-negotiable part of the package. There is no way to get to the happy ending without finding our way through them.
Of course the ultimate happy ending of our sad stories is yet to come. And while we wait for the Storyteller to make his way to the final chapter, we will continue to have our sad stories—stories of slaves being bought and sold and mistreated, of friends getting cancer, of dreams withering, of relationships dying, of faith, hope, and love faltering. And we will continue to need to hear these sad stories, to learn from them, to help each other through them, and to offer them up to the only one who can make something good and beautiful out of them, to the one who is faithful to his creation, to the one who will, ultimately, do what is just and right with all of our sad stories.