There is a traditional Lakota tale of a woman and an eagle. A disaster had struck the land and the woman was left alone, the only surviving member of her people. The woman was deeply sad and weak from the storm that had killed her people. In all likelihood she knew she would soon die like all the rest. But then an eagle came along. At first, the woman feared he would attack her, maybe even kill her. But instead the eagle spoke to her.
When the eagle heard her story and saw how sad she was, he decided to help her. The eagle hunted game for the woman, helping her regain her strength. The eagle brought wood from a nearby forest so she could build a fire to keep warm. As time went on, the woman got stronger and happier. She was not alone anymore.
However, winter was quickly approaching, and the eagle knew that the woman would die without shelter. He prayed to the Grandfather, asking why he hadn’t come to the woman’s aid. Couldn’t he see her suffering? After all, the Grandfather had the ability to help her.
The Grandfather said, “I have come to the woman’s aid. I sent you to her.”
The next time the eagle came to visit the woman, he no longer flew to her, nor was he clothed in feathers. He came walking, on two legs. The Grandfather had transformed him into a man. Together, the eagle and the woman survived the winter, and had many children and the woman’s race flourished again.
I think this is a beautiful story. I have been thinking much lately about the way the structure of a good story relates to real life. Today, we often don’t live very good stories, to be honest. Perhaps the most basic tenet of story is essentially this: a character who wants something and encounters conflict in order to get it.
In which case, the stories we live out are rooted in our deepest desires. You would not watch the movie about a man who wants to work in an office and save enough money to buy a brand new Volvo. Unfortunately, this is too often not that far from reality. We live little boring stories, often largely for ourselves.
What I think is most powerful about stories is that they open our eyes to the things that really matter. People in stories accept the call to a bigger story. Oftentimes they are called out of an ordinary life to something larger and more important. Luke Skywalker leaves the moisture farm to save the princess and also the galaxy. Katniss takes her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and proceeds to spark a revolution. They don’t have to be stories about heroes either. Walter White starts cooking meth to pay for cancer treatment and goes on to become a drug kingpin.
If the wants of our characters are clear and large, it will make for an interesting story.
Now, I think we ought to live out the stories of sacrifice and heroism personally.
I think some of the most powerful stories are those where a character learns to care more about others than themselves. Good Will Hunting would have been less interesting if Will had simply been really smart and then got a job and made lots of money.Learning that he doesn’t know everything and that love is more important than knowledge or money makes for a much better story.
I watched a recent movie called A Good Lie last week. It tells the story of a group of kids displaced by violence in Sudan. At one point, the oldest boy gives himself up to be captured by soldiers so that the others might have a shot at freedom. Four of them survive and are brought to America to start a new life. But the oldest boy’s brother never could forget what his brother had done. When he discovers that his brother eventually escaped from the soldiers, he returns to Sudan. Due to 9/11 and some bureaucracy, the oldest could not be granted passage to the U.S. But the younger brother thought of a solution. He and his brother, now full-grown, looked nearly identical. The younger gave his older brother his clothes and his passport and took his place back in Sudan.
Learning to live for something or someone beyond ourselves makes for a beautiful story, such as the story of the eagle and the woman or Will Hunting or the Sudanese boys, and countless others. It also makes for a beautiful life.
That is the sort of story I’d like to be living. Those stories call something out of me. They remind me to live for more than myself, more than my job, the mortgage, more than my writing.
There are things going on in the world that make me wonder like the eagle, why the “Grandfather” has done nothing about it, things like poverty and oppression and bigotry and depression. But I hear the call of the story, and I hear someone saying, “I have done something. I sent you.”