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July 7, 2017

Education vs. Entertainment: The Power of Fiction

by Chris



While most of us are preparing for the summer, making vacation plans and finishing off the leftover burgers and potato salad from this week’s barbecue, there are some of us who find it a little more difficult to enjoy the sun, warm weather and beaches. Not for lack of trying, you understand, but sometimes it’s hard to see the sun for the clouds.

I, like millions around the world, suffer from a mental illness. For me it’s a kind of depressive bipolar, which means I go through extended periods of severe depression, alternating with periods of happy, lightened moods.

I’m happy right now, which is a good thing, but that’s besides the point.

The point is, there are a lot of things going on in people’s lives, in their minds and in their spirits, and often the rest of the world seems to go on, oblivious. I can’t really blame anyone for this—it’s hard to pay attention to what you don’t know is there—but sometimes you can’t help wonder if there was a way to waker people up, get them to notice, and maybe, just maybe, help out.

Now, I speak specifically about mental illness because it’s something I’m familiar with, but the same could be said of poverty, sexuality, or racism. There are a lot of things wrong in the world, and it’s easy—in fact, desirable, most of the time—to turn a blind eye to it. It makes life a lot easier if you pretend problems don’t exist.

And human nature only has so much capacity for kindness; even with the most open of hearts, one person can only pay attention to so many things before they are overwhelmed, and shut down themselves.

But while one can’t reasonably expect people to care about everything equally, just like we can’t donate to every charity in the world, it is possible to ask that they open their eyes for a moment, let in the light (or darkness, as the case may be), and see if something sticks. Because knowledge is power, and education is the bringer of knowledge.

This is where things get a little fuzzy, though. Most adults, sadly, resent education; perhaps they have bad memories of school, or don’t want to feel inferior for not knowing something, but it’s very difficult to get an otherwise rational human being to change their mind or consider something from an outside perspective. But adults love entertainment. They love to be distracted, taken away from the mundane of the everyday, and spirited off to a fantasy world of ghosts and goblins, or even hitwomen and spies.

And there is a place here, in entertainment, to silently and subtly educate. It’s an interesting concept, because most people don’t tend to think of education and entertainment as compatible. Learning isn’t supposed to be fun, we’re taught from an early age; learning is boring, cramming for tests, and subsequently forgetting most of what we learned anyway.

But when something under the guise of entertainment reaches a deeper part of our soul, touches our heart and brings out tears or laughter, there’s a good chance that something will stick.

Alison wrote a few months ago about reading Thirteen Reasons Why with her daughter. I’ve written about it before, myself. It’s a book that has some teaching moments, certainly: educating people about suicide, bullying and the traumas that young people go through is vitally important, especially for parents. Yet it’s been heavily criticized for not delving into the psychology behind suicide, and the mental depression that invariably goes along with it.

Sometimes a book doesn’t have to be about a topic to have a learning moment; in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is as much about childhood trauma as adolescence, there a significant homosexual relationship which is mainly accepted by the protagonist, though the book doesn’t strictly center around it. Yet there is a potential for a reader to question their own priorities, and reflect on the abuse they may have witnessed and never acted on themselves.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of why we write fiction at all. Is it for entertainment? Is it for education? Does every story need to have a learning point, or would that be too similar to an agenda?

Perhaps it can be a bit of all of that. While a Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy thriller might not have much to teach us in the ways humanity, it doesn’t necessarily make them any less valid as entertainment. And if Thirteen Reasons Why is meant to teach about social bullying and suicide, it doesn’t prevent it from being a thrilling recreation.

Undoubtedly, some people will walk away from these books without learning a thing. They will read it to distract, and to experience the emotions and feelings that come with powerful writing and difficult subjects, but they may not move on to act on it in any way. Some people might keep a wider eye out for something they had previously been oblivious to: I remember reading Her by Christa Parravani, and to this day I’m—perhaps subtly—more aware of the hidden sexual traumas that women must face every day.

And sometimes a book might just be powerful enough to cause a few people, or even one person, to change their mindset, the way they think, or even the way they behave. They might look at their coworker, their spouse or their children in a new light, and appreciate them just a little more than before. And herein lies the power of fiction: stories have the potential to change the world, one person at a time.

What is something you remember learning from a book, or a film? What’s the most impactful lesson that’s stayed with you, ever since?

Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris's creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of ErĂ¢th. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com.

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