I was reading a story on the plane today. It was the tale of a terrible war, a battle between two civilizations bent on the destruction of the other. It spoke of barbaric acts, of unspeakable horrors, of cruelty and pain on such a magnitude it could only exist in a place devoid of morality.
None of it is real. No one is really dying, no one is having their heart broken, no one’s lives are really being destroyed. And yet, it bothers me. It bothers me because I know such tales of war were not composed in a vacuum. The power that story holds over me does not come from the imaginary characters it paints, but of the real people it is based off of. The lives that really were lost, the tragedies that tore us apart, the chapters of human history most of us would prefer to forget.
I sometimes find it difficult to keep reading, to discover the horrors I know are lying in wait for our beloved protagonist. With each tragedy that befalls them, I find myself feeling sorry for the character in the story, even though they aren’t real. Yet, I’m also feeling sorry for the millions of people I have never met who suffered the same fate. It’s difficult to continue because every chapter reminds me of the perils of human existence. I’m not sure there is a happy ending to this tale, or if there is, what the tremendous costs might be.
Perhaps we seek happy endings in our stories because we care about these imaginary characters that have been invented for our benefit. Or perhaps it is because we desperately want to believe that our lives also have a happy ending. We project our troubles and battles into what we read, wanting to believe that we can be the protagonist in our own tales.
This story speaks of tremendous struggles, of soldiers who lost everything and fought to save their nation from being lost to the sands of time. It is brutally effective in reminding us of what we truly hold dear, of what really matters in the end. It puts you in the armor of a new recruit who is suddenly left wondering if he should have spent more time enjoying life now that his could very well be extinguished in a moment. You watch a soldier die by the hand of his own commander simply because he refused to obey a command he knew was wrong.
You don’t need a sword to tear the life out of your closest friend. A drunk driver could do the same. A rare disease. Cancer. We may frame heartbreak in many different ways, but the emotion stays the same. The pain of loss is something that transcends mere words, and we can feel it’s power even when we’re reading about people who never existed.
Sometimes, stories are hard to read because they remind us too much of the world we were trying to escape in the first place. They remind us of everything—and everyone—we could lose.
And those… those are the most precious stories of all.