Two boys run around the playground equipment skidding on the little wood chips carpeting the ground. They zap, pow, punch, and kick as they zoom about. One is wearing a red cape that flaps in the wind behind him as he flies around with his arms stretched in front of him. The other has on a hero’s mask that covers his excited face with angular metal plates, but it still reveals his glowing blue eyes.
A flock of girls are dancing about in flowing princess dresses. One dreams of dying her hair red, even curling it. She gallops about with her stick-horse and practices shooting her toy bow (she even says the word bow with a Scottish accent).
A teenager starts to sing like the voices coming out of her ear buds. Her style morphs in a blinding blur of short, long, flared, skinny, greasy, clean, torn, crisp, ever changing to match a fashion icon’s newest trend.
A mother and father move for work and their staccato Yankee “you guys” slowly melts in the Southern sun of their new home into a long draw out “y’all.” As years pass, the station wagon is traded in for a minivan, and the minivan is traded in for a SUV, and the SUV is traded in for a crossover vehicle. All this because their friends and coworkers declare that they have discovered the next great family car.
What do we see in these snippets of life? Cameos of man-kind’s character: our common in-built tendency to follow.
All around us, this tendency is being called upon for good or evil. Built right into our souls are the parts that make us followers. Man was created to be a disciple so he will always follow something. We mimic. We copy. We compare. We do all these things from the first day we enter this world. We watch and then we try to walk. We listen and then we try to talk. As life exposes us to ideas and examples, we do it without seeking permission, we do it without a lecture, we learn, and we become. We follow what is set before us. We are made this way. Life touches life, and part of it, whatever it is, becomes part of us. Those we listen to, those we watch, those we interact with, those we follow, those we hear about, are given the power of influence. They are part of the forming of who we will become.
This truth can have a powerful impact on us as parents if we give ourselves time to think it over. Disciples learn as they watch. They become as they are exposed. Ideas plant seeds into people’s souls, and seeds can produce a harvest. This is why stories are so powerful. Stories are ideas embodied as examples. As Louis L’Amour once wrote,
“It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”
We will all learn as we live our lives, but not all of us will take advantage of learning from the multitude of lives we could live in books.
An author scoops up a life and displays it for us to behold. This offering is a gift. As we read it, the natural process that God has placed in us begins to work. We become the one embodied in the pages, either hero or villain, coward or cad. The words draw us in, and we live vicariously (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all).
If the story we read speaks truth, then we learn the lessons as if we had lived them ourselves. If it speaks lies, we will take them into our souls and build our future upon this deceitful foundation of false experience. Though this truth can be said of all experiences that influences our lives, books have an advantage over other types of mentors. Books give us an ending. All stories by their very nature include an ending. As we read them, we get it all — the beginning, the middle, and the end. We get to see the cause and the effect created by a character’s life. The great truth of consequences plays out before us in these living books (especially the Bible), and we see what leads to a tragic ending or to a happily ever after. We live and learn with these characters all the way to the end.
As for the unwritten, unscripted, unfinished life of the celebrity, the athlete, the social media superstar, or the acquaintances that we meet or “follow,” we do not know where their choices will lead them. They are still in the middle of their stories, and it can be hard to see where they are leading us. Sometimes, because of this obscurity, we follow them until it is too late. We have lived our lives and have followed the wrong person, and our story is over. Our one life is lived and we cannot go back. But books are not so.
As we follow the people in story books, we gain days with hours, we gain years with days, and we gain life from the words and lessons they live before us. The perspective gained in books can be omniscience, whereas everyday life can only give us what we gain through our own limited experience. We gain the benefits of following a life to the end before we reach our end.
As our children live, they will learn. They will find guides. The natural desire to follow something or someone will be fulfilled. It cannot be denied. But like all their drives, we as parents can influence their appetites. The books we read aloud, the literature we consume, the poetry we quote, all help to form an atmosphere. As our children watch us and follow us, we have the opportunity to bring abundant living to their lives. The chance to learn from many endings is a gift. It is a gift we can give them so they can reach their own happy endings.
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