Fictional Reality

Fiction is not reality.

While you’re pondering this mind-blowing concept, here’s a comment I came across, on a thread about today’s families:

Actually, from what I see in our society, both parents have capitulated and the children are ruling the family. Not sure what you’d call that, but I know it’s not good for anybody.

I want to push this person up against a wall and demand, “How many families like this do you, personally, know?”

His answer would be, “Lots!” and I know how he knows them, too. We all know them.

When somebody mentions “marriage in America today,” you are trained to assume that 50% of marriages will end in divorce. Couples who have been married 7 years probably are stagnating, or one of the spouses is cheating. Children run wild. Alternatively, children are stifled and overprotected. Atheists have a bleak and bitter life. Religious people have a guilt-ridden and conflicted life. Nobody — nobody — is happy.

There’s a trace of truth in all that. Everybody has problems, all families struggle, answers are hard to come by, and life just sucks sometimes. Ask any lawyer, counselor, pastor, or police officer who sees this side of society every day. But if we’re honest, we realize that most people don’t reveal their problems and unhappiness to us. (There are a few exceptions on Facebook, of course.) Where do we get most of our information about other people?

From stories, that’s where. From fiction.

Books, movies, TV shows, music — we often know fictional people better than we know real people. Fiction lets us get out of our own skin and live other people’s lives. It would be a desolate, gray world without fiction.

But the thing about fiction is that it reflects reality, but it is not reality. Nobody in fiction is happy. Happy people make boring stories. To state a fact without bragging, DJ and I have a marriage that many would envy. But as a romance story? It’s pretty dull. Good stories need tension, and tension comes from unhappiness.

So the couples you read about in books — they’re not happy. The families you see on TV — they’re not happy.* Most songs are about lost love or existential crises. Right at this moment I’m listening to Imagine Dragons singing, “All the sorrows I have seen/Lead me to believe/That everything’s a mess/I want to dream/Leave me to dream.”

Well, of course you know that it’s all fiction. Nobody really thinks that Downton Abbey is a rigorously authentic depiction of WWI English society. (Right?) Do I even have a point?

Yes, in fact, I do. Many parenting and marriage articles are based on the premise that you’ve got to work fast and hard to keep disaster from overtaking you. Marriages falling apart… families broken and devastated… people eaten up with materialism and selfishness to the disregard of the people who love them… Right, that’s all familiar. Next time somebody starts getting all alarmist and doomsday about the state of society today, stop and really listen. How much of this does the speaker know personally? Or how much of it sounds a whole lot like somebody’s been imbibing fiction and thinking it’s reality?

Instead, get out and meet real people. Understand who they are. You’ll find that many difficult children have very caring parents. Many marriages are so stable and happy that they look downright boring. Many people give quietly and generously to others in need. You’ll see pain and struggle, but you’ll also see triumph and happiness. It’s more complicated than fiction — because it’s real.

Enjoy your stories, people. You can even enjoy your doomsday self-help articles if you want to. But keep your fiction separate from my reality.

* Disney shows are an exception. Everybody is happy, unless they’re dramatically unhappy, which never lasts too long. They portray a world where kids go to school but never to class; where kids are smart-mouths and their parents are dumb; where disasters are wrapped up in twenty minutes with a laugh track. Lest you think this is an indictment against Disney, I happen to really like Good Luck Charlie, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Zach and Cody on Deck. And as a family resource, Disney’s Family Fun magazine is genuinely helpful.

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