Just Stories

As Asha and I wandered through the Colosseum, we came across an exhibit detailing ancient mythology. Both of us took real delight in the stories we encountered about the gods of old.

Why was I able to enjoy them so much? Part of it has to do with the fact that they're thrilling stories wrapped in an incredible amount of symbolism. The stories we encountered were the way in which the beginnings of modern civilization made sense of a changing world. The turning of the seasons, for example, can be explained by the tale of Persephone.

Besides the fact that they're examples of good storytelling, I think that another reason why I was able to enjoy them was that we have all decided that they are just stories. No one professes belief in Zeus anymore. Because no one stakes meaning on the veracity of these stories, we are free to appreciate their poetry.

I've spent a lot of this trip wandering through religious landscapes. The exhibit at the Colosseum was the first time that I could really lose myself in the religious story before me because it was just that: a story. The day after the Colosseum, we visited the Vatican and all the usual mental roadblocks took up their position. It was hard for me to appreciate the beauty of the Sistine Chapel when I knew that so much meaning and the foundation of many people's lives rides on the truth of the stories depicted. Unlike with the stories of the old gods, to not buy into the stories on those ceilings comes at a cost. In that beautiful space, my lack of belief and the faith of the onlooking true believer are locked in a zero-sum game. Each of our perspectives implicitly returns a negative judgement on the other. Trapped in this zero-sum game, I lack the freedom to just enjoy the story.

I don't have any of the answers but I do believe stories will always be how we move the world and make sense of it. The tools of our storytelling -- and the stories themselves -- will naturally change and adapt. That much is certain. I wonder, though, which of the stories we tell ourselves today will withstand the test of time.