Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

Prairie Encounters

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