Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Reading for Emotional Health

I recently came across a wonderful article entitled "Deep Calls to Deep" written by Joseph Prever. In it he speaks about the power of story to speak to us during the difficult times in life, often in unexpected ways. Growing up in a literary family he was exposed to literature far beyond his comprehension and only later was able to appreciate the formative role it played in his life. And only later was he able to understand the emotions faced by the characters he encountered. It's a beautiful article and one that I'm sure you will find encouraging. Click here to read.

The section of the article I found exceptional and very moving was where he talks about being exposed to the gruesome images of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And he asks a question we're often asked at BFB and answers it much more eloquently than we have been able to!
Is it safe to expose children to such dark images? I think so, or as safe as any real poetry can be; poetry is no tame lion. At that age, I had no categories in my mind for real darkness, and so the darkness couldn’t get in to do me damage. But the image stayed; which meant that when the reality showed up years later, I was not defenseless.

What a beautiful way to put it. In the past decades we've increasingly sterilized the images we place before our children. While the original Grimm fairy tales were in fact very grim and often disturbing, we're no longer willing to tell stories of cannibalistic women living in candy houses and instead opt to present stories of princesses attaining self-fulfillment and tales where dreams come true and everyone lives happily ever after. This may be a good thing, especially when it comes to evil stepmothers wanting to be rid of their stepchildren, but when it comes to great literature one must ask, "Are we limiting the ability of our children to deal with the difficulties life will inevitably present them?"

When one considers the stories that speak most deeply to us they are not the tales of everything turning up roses. They are the stories that provide guidance to us in the decisions and situations we face in real life.

Whether one seeks relational wisdom from Jane Austen or encouragement from Psalms, great literature is not made up of cotton candy tales. When I was young I spent hours staring at the illustrations that accompanied a fantastic children's version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. These were pictures of frightening monsters, dark valleys, daunting mountains, and treacherous companions. I remember friends of my mom expressing their surprise that she allowed her children to be exposed to such a violent book. This despite the fact that Pilgrim's Progress is one of the great literary works of Christianity. Just as Prever later found solace from the poetry his mother read to him, I've found myself comforted by the story of Christian's perilous journey. Reading the original last year was enriched by the images I carried with me from that children's version read so long ago. And through the ups and downs of life I take comfort in the fact that just as Christian faced obstacles, he was also granted periods of rest and renewal. Even in the darkest points of life, I am reminded by Bunyan's poignant tale that this too shall pass and while I do not have the ability to see beyond the next moment, Christian's faithfulness in a multitude of challenges and situations reminds me that a single period does not define a life. It's now an overused cliché that life is a journey but it's also true and I know of no other piece of literature that illustrates that point more clearly. Pilgrim's Progress reminds me to cherish the sweet days, persevere through the difficult ones, and give thanks throughout. And that is the power of great literature.

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