After a public presentation on addictions, a mother approached me, in that familiar way — hushed, conspiratorial, a sliver of shame buried in the hopefulness of her manner — and asked me what she can do about her son. Her boy is fifteen, plays online games for countless hours each week, hides himself in his locked room, screams at her when she tries to enter, seldom attends school, and seems to be sliding ever farther from her. She is terrified that he will simply forget everything and everyone, will become a ghost, and will disappear. She has heard these stories, and the many others that twist within her. And she is terrified. But she knows that most people will blame her for what has happened — her parenting must be at fault, they will say — so she downplays, even to herself, the seriousness of her son’s predicament. She tells me about her family coming here from abroad, when her son was seven, and his subsequent struggles at school. She wonders if this might have played a role in what has happened. Possibly it has. Not only the exodus itself, which must have been terrifying for them all, but what came before and after: the tension and suspicion and hiding, then a long and uncertain journey, then a new culture, clashing values, poverty. Yet if they had not come, if they had not fled on motorcycles at night across the mountains, into a safer country and then across the sea, that boy would now be dead, or in prison with the rest of the family, or an expert, by now, in the firing of rocket propelled grenades.
On the first day of the semester I come across one of my students huddled in her car, shivering, crippled by panic. Later that morning, another student begins to cry as I walk with her toward the bookstore. She is overwhelmed, distraught about her inability to cope, and feels herself sliding into a familiar spiral of despair. In the early evening, as I pass through the university grounds on my way home, a third student approaches. He tells me of his depression, of his addiction to video games, and of his struggles with identity and direction. I listen, as I have done with the others. I offer help in small ways that I hope might be useful. And I recognize that I will participate in many more of these conversations in the coming months. They are a routine part of the work that I do with university students.
Stories are maps, repositories of collected wisdom, ciphers and guides for making sense of the human journey. Whether archaic, prosaic, or postmodern, stories illuminate the paths undertaken by all those who seek resolution and healing. And stories are all the same, at heart: beneath the guises of religion, behind the consistent attempts to make them fresh and new, beyond the politics and tribalisms that run through the tales of every generation. Stories tell one thing: how to discover hidden illumination.
Got a minute?
Stop whatever else you are doing. Close your email application and Facebook, turn off the background music, silence your cell phone. Put it all away. Do it now. I’ll wait. Sit in silence, without distraction, and read this post. Silence the part of you that makes false claims about the utility of background music or the necessity of leaving your cell phone turned on. Silence the part of you that wants to argue with me, right now, about my unreasonableness, the part of you that makes claims for this or that distraction. Still the monkey mind that never shuts up, never stops talking, never ceases inventing new ways to jostle, cajole, argue. Stop arguing and listen: the voice of a writer can only be found within silence.