“Don’t worry, he’s the main character so nothing bad will happen to him,” my seven-year-old assures my five-year-old with a matter-of-factness that only a young child can muster. The author reinforces his belief, guiding the protagonist through every battle and hardship with ease.
Do bad things happen to good characters? Do heroes ever fail their mission? Do protagonists ever die?
If I asked my son these questions point blank, he would likely hesitate. “Bad things might happen, but everything works out in the end,” he would probably respond after a few moments of wrinkled-brow pondering. Many of the stories that have soaked his imagination and inspired his own storytelling passions support his thesis. Bilbo survives. Aslan survives. Picket survives. Growly survives. Jesus may die, but children tend to brush past those agonizing three days to focus on the joyous resurrection. Other stories, full of hope and wonder and other redemptive qualities, don’t even threaten the protagonist.
These seven years of his life have been blessed with very few moments of hardship or nearby deaths, so even life itself seems to confirm his hypothesis so far. While there have been struggles, he’s watched God bless him, his family, and his extended family over and over.
Another compelling part of this narrative is the limited nature death plays in our household. We’re fortunate to not have any harmful pests in the house, so a stray beetle or ant is typically met with the compelling question, “Do we have to kill it? Why do we have to squash it for no reason?” I don’t find any reason to condone an unnecessary death, so the intruding insect is typically carried outside to fend for itself.
There are, obviously, exceptions to this rule. I can still remember the heart-wrenching sobs elicited at the end of Charlotte’s Web as my wonderfully sensitive son absorbed all the beauty and horror of a life lost in this world.
Moments like those make it very tempting to avoid serious conflict in stories. Villains shouldn’t be too scary, heroes shouldn’t be too hurt, and missions need a kid-safe bow to tie them up at the end. To be honest, it’s easy to fall into this thinking as a parent. It’s becoming easy to let it affect my writing. My laptop seems suddenly incapable of crafting shouting scenes, dying moments, or earth-shaking examples of sacrifice in the face of a hopeless cause.
Is this what we’re called to as parents? As writers? As Christians? Unfortunately, that’s not the life we were called to. Jesus made it clear when he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
This isn’t a call to dwell on the evil elements in this life. It isn’t a slump into misery and despondency as our modern, proverbial tower of Babel comes crashing down on us while we desperately find ways to speak each other’s language.
It’s a call to joy.
James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3 NIV). Challenges and trials aren’t just a byproduct of sin in this life. They are refineries to set our lives ablaze, giving us opportunities to develop perseverance.
Perseverance is not one of my natural character traits. If anything, I would say a lack of perseverance is a family trait. “Oh well…” is my catch phrase, used more often than I’d like to admit as I move away from one challenge and look for an easier, simpler, safer path forward.
I don’t want to be content with safe paths. I don’t want to deceive my children into thinking this world is altogether peaceful, altogether safe. While there are moments of incredible beauty and awe-inspiring love, there is also pain and hardship and even death. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, of course it’s not safe. But it’s good.
I want to foster a respect for death and hardship in my family, my writing, and my life. Part of telling good stories is remembering that not all chapters end with smiles on our faces. What does it look like to foster imagination and a healthy sense of this world’s hardship without crushing sensitive spirits?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a detailed, 10-step solution, but I know that Christ is at the center of any meaningful answer. The Apostle Paul says, “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26 NIV).
As for me and my house, we will continue to train. We’ll continue to remember that we will have trouble in this world, that death and grief and frustration and disappointment are just around the corner, but that Christ has overcome the world. In the meantime, I’m going to challenge my sons with stories of hardship as well as happiness, stories with grief and loss before eventual healing.