The Great Human Constant

February 2, 2010

I owe an apology and an explanation to my regular readers. More than a month has drifted by since I last posted and oh what a month it’s been…

In early January my wife exerienced what we thought was nothing more than an inner ear infection or blockage, but when it didn’t go away we discovered it was something more serious. She was sent for a head MRI to check for the presence of tumors on the auditory nerve and the possibility of stroke – two tests which fortunately came back clear. After several audiograms and a second opinion consultation, she was diagnosed with idiopathic unilateral sudden sensorineural hearing loss. In simpler terms, she has gone mostly deaf in one ear due to nerve damage of unknown origin. SSHL is largely a mystery in the world of otological medicine. It can be caused by viral infection, by certain drugs such as antibiotics, by diabetic vascular events, and a host of other factors. Sometimes it just happens without cause.

We are now faced with adapting to a variety of new circumstances. Because her balance is off she cannot drive (or even walk that well) until she learns to compensate for the dizziness. She has persistent (and possibly permament) tinnitus in the damaged ear which is causing her a great deal of mental stress. Hearing aids are not covered by our health insurance, although we may have a case for a disability insurance claim. It’s a whole lot of big changes that came about virtually overnight. Needless to say, the blog was the furthest thing from my mind, and my writing has taken a month-long hiatus as well.

As stressful as the month has been, it has served as a wake-up call and a much needed reminder to me of the fragility of our human condition. When I was sitting in the diagnostic center watching my wife in the MRI tube, all past worries and petty arguments fell into perspective and the world suddenly seemed very simple – both in an awful and paradoxically beautiful way. I’ve looked at my wife these past few weeks with gratitude for every moment we can spend together and I don’t think I’ve felt this depth of love since our wedding day almost a decade ago.

Buddhists have a conceptual view of the universe that entails three main factors which they call the three marks of existence. The first of these is the fact of impermanence. It’s a reality we’re all aware of on a conscious level – that nothing lasts – but often it’s not until life steps up and slaps us in the face that we feel this fundamental truth in our hearts and genuinely understand it. Our circumstances are subject to continual change. The most stable of relationships will come to an end; the most powerful of people will grow old and ultimately die; empires will crumble and new ones will rise in their stead; seasons will cycle; perceptions will shift…

Paradoxical as it may be, it seems the one great constant of the human experience is change.

To bring this blog back on course, I want to get back to thinking about the art of storytelling. Surely, in light of this great constant, we can say that the most enduring stories must encompass great change in the life of a character. It’s not the stories about love that are compelling, it’s the ones about a change in the circumstances of love that touch us the most deeply – those about love lost, love gained, or love transformed. Romeo and Juliet did not start their tragic tale already in love and end it in the same state… that would have been an awfully boring story.

And what about death? It seems to me that death features powerfully in just about every literary genre out there – even in the most popular of children’s books. Pick up any literary “masterpiece” and I’ll warrant you’ll find it has a meditation on death at it’s core. And what is death if not the greatest change any of us can undergo in our experience of being human? It’s that final transition from the known to the unknown. A story that deals with death – or with the upheavals that death has wrought among those still alive – automatically bears witness to a truth of the human condition.

Action stories, thrillers, and many horror tales are really stories about a transition from a status of apparent security to a place of deep discomfort. We all spend our lives cultivating an illusion of security – we put up our fire alarms, pad our savings accounts, insure our belongings, do our exercises and eat our greens all in a vain effort to stave off the change that is inevitably coming. In thriller stories, the condition usually returns to a sense of security by the climax. In horror there is often no such return to safety, which – one could argue – makes horror the more honest genre.

In subtler ways, most stories deal with internal change that has profound consequences for the characters undergoing it – changes in opinion, changes in ideals, changes in self-image, changes in understanding etc. These “revelation” stories are often some of the most satisfying forms of story to read.

But I don’t think that change alone is the engine that drives a story. Rather, it’s the variety of ways our characters respond to the changes we thrust upon them that matters. It’s one of the most satisfying experiences for an author when a character takes on a seeming life of their own and begins to respond to changes in ways even the author themselves could not predict. In a way it’s downright spooky. When a character admirably handles the circumstances we toss their way, we have a triumphant arc; when a character caves to the change we may well have a tale of tragedy on our hands.

It’s been a month of change for my wife and I, and though my writing schedule has suffered, I’m deeply grateful for the wake-up call it’s given me. The future is always uncertain and what we do in the moment is all that counts. I think perhaps now it’s time to roll with the punches and put some new words on the page…