Stories From The New Country

2013-04-11_13.01.11As a parent, and like all parents before me, it is my job to worry about my kids and the world we are leaving them. I have done at least some of that worrying on this blog. During my recent daily life, I’ve been reflecting a lot on these things that concern me, so I’m going to try to reexamine some the recent issues that this worry has raised.

In many ways, I am in awe of the bravery of today’s young people. Their world is startlingly immediate and immense. The entire world and all its beauty and terror and fragility and glory is just a few keystrokes or finger swipes away. There is a complexity and scope to the everyday world of today’s youth that children of my generation could hardly begin to conceive of. With that accessibility and immediacy comes a responsibility that I’m not sure most children are ready for. So as thoughtful parents of this generation, we spend an enormous amount of time attempting to control the relentless flow of information and influence into our home and our children’s lives. It’s a big job.

But I’m aiming for some perspective here. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years observing how my kids and their friends interact with the world, and how different that interaction feels than it did when I was of a similar age. I talked about this very thing in my previous post, Leaving The Old Country. If you read it, you will see that it is a bit of a sky-is-falling post but you will also, thankfully, find a handful of comments from some very wise people who reminded me that while the activities and preferences of today’s children may be very different from the ones my generation embraced as young people, what lies beneath it all is universal in intent and reaches back in time further than we realize.

Because if we stop and really look at it, we can see that whether they are walking quietly beneath the shifting leaves of old trees, reading Harry Potter, diving for a rock at the bottom of the lake, watching Ben 10, playing baseball in the backyard, texting friends, building settlements on the island of Catan, running a neighborhood race, drawing pictures, playing in the bath, fiddling on Facebook, hitting each other with sticks, listening to music, building astonishing creations in Minecraft, watching YouTube videos, making YouTube videos, blowing bubbles in the yard, blogging or getting Mario to the next level … today’s kids, like all kids in the history of kids are doing something very important.  They are searching for their story.

They are searching for themselves in their own story and in the stories of others.

Being alive is overwhelmingly complicated and random and the universe is more vast than we could possibly imagine. For centuries, human beings have used stories to give the infinite universe a workable framework that our limited minds can embrace. When a child opens his eyes for the first time, nothing has a name and everything is everything at once. As young people, they begin to discover –even craft– who they are by the stories we give them and, most importantly, the stories they discover for themselves.

Whether or not I was always aware of it, everything I have ever done in my entire life has been in service to this search. When I was about 9 or 10, I decided that I was going to be “the worlds youngest published author.” I sat downstairs on my mother’s typewriter and fed countless pages of old yellow scrap paper into the wheels of the clackety device, pounding out hero stories that were little else than pale imitations of Voltron or The Hobbit. They weren’t my stories. Not exactly. They were other people’s stories and I was repurposing them into my own. In doing so, I was attempting to carve out a narrative that gave shape to the life and tested the values I was growing into. When it wasn’t writing, it was music, and when it wasn’t music it was the theatre. It was the theatre that finally stuck. It was in the theatre where I would eventually gain two degrees and enjoy a respectable career as a director, which is a storytelling profession that I’ve always felt was a kind of artistic archaeology.  And before, during and after all of that were the games.

Backyard games, board games and video games. My family, friends and I unearthed epic stories in backyards or beneath the Dungeons, or locked within The Dark Tower and by playing these manipulable narratives, I related my young self to the forces of valor who helped to craft and organize a chaotic world. These stories, however fantastical, are driven by a powerful human mythology that illustrates that a single, small life can have enormous purpose, and that the efforts of the individual has meaning and consequences.

The great stories of classical mythology are nothing but grand, violent adventure stories that attempt to illuminate both the smallness of man and his uniqueness of spirit. If I am honest with myself, I can’t come up with any real meaningful differences between an epic poem like Beowulf and shows like Ben 10 or games like The Legend of Zelda beyond that of form. Shakespeare’s grand tragedies are filled with murder, incest, adultery, beheadings, eye gougings and reckless sex. The Odyssey is a monster tale like no other, with deceit, treachery, violence, pride, vanity and desire all present in the story of its Hero. Kids listened to these stories not because of the “poetry” or the “message” but because they were the most riveting stories told in the most fashionable mode of the times. Shakespeare did not write for academics, he wrote for a rowdy, general audience who liked vulgarity, violence and crude humor and it is often said that if Shakespeare was alive today he’d either write for television or the video game industry. Shakespeare wrote in verse because it was the the preferred form that everyday people expected when coming to the theatre. Most of his stories were not originals, they were adaptations of ancient stories or stories from mythologies that he repurposed into his own. The fact that he did it all better than anyone in the history of the language is entirely beside the point.

When my family and I open up a board game and lay it on a table, we are, essentially building a world and setting up a story. There is a lot to be gained from exploring these worlds. Each game has its own system of morality and physics, rules to be adhered to and problems to solve. The great board games of our times are also great playable stories, and each mini-adventure is a micro-journey of self-discovery, social interaction, role development, cooperation, and trial and error. Good video games have a recognizable and playable mythology, a specific set of goals to achieve, and are built on the notion that if you can’t complete a task the first time, don’t give up — learn from your mistakes and try again.  Keep it up and eventually you will save the world.

The forms change, but the stories remain the same. Humans just keep inventing new ways of experiencing them.

I am a digital immigrant. If you are still reading this, I’d say there is a pretty good chance that you are too. And if you have kids, there is no question that they are digital natives. Their world looks very different than ours did, but if we shut our mouths and remember to listen closely enough, our little digital natives are teaching us how to speak the language of the New Country and showing us how to experience the old stories in new ways. Just as cultural immigrant parents do, we need to understand the importance in allowing our children to learn the new language. We can still monitor, filter, limit and regulate. That’s our jobs as parents.  We can still ask them to respect and value the old language.  That’s our jobs as cultural elders.  But we cannot dismiss the new language entirely, and we don’t do our children much service by constantly bemoaning the realities of their world.

After all, this is the world we brought them into.